The first time I learned Northeast Ohio had a heroin addiction, I didn't quite believe it. Not in Independence, where officials had listed it as the biggest news in the town of more than 7,000 residents for our 2012 Rating the Suburbs survey. No way, I thought.
But about 800 people had shown up to a town hall meeting that January to hear the city prosecutor, police chief and church representatives talk about its dangers. Heroin had become easily available. Users were getting younger. That year, according to the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner's office, 161 people died of heroin overdoses, with 42.9 percent of victims being residents of the suburbs.
"You don't just show up on a corner and start shooting heroin," says Cuyahoga County sheriff Frank Bova in this month's feature "194." But as we see from the number of heroin deaths in Cuyahoga County last year and the stories about the people behind it, it ends the same for way too many.
Officials had identified a well-worn path: alcohol, marijuana, maybe prescription drugs. But heroin — cheap, easy and
everywhere — was just waiting. "There's more heroin around than any other drug," said a participant in Ohio Substance Abuse Monitoring Network's
January Drug Trend Report for the Cleveland Region.
What resulted is a vicious flywheel of misery. Supply and demand caused dealers to switch from selling other drugs to heroin. The drug's highly addictive nature produced a steady flow of customers. Meanwhile, increased attention to prescription drug patterns reduced the potential for abuse, forcing addicts to find another high.
Luckily, the region is taking action. "We started to go back and look at all of our overdoses and see if we could identify certain intervention points," says Cuyahoga County medical examiner Thomas Gilson. For example, 70 percent of people died with others around. So law enforcement is getting better access to Naloxone, an antidote to heroin that can be administered during an overdose.
As parents, friends, family members, we must also look for intervention points, places where we can step in before it's too late. Don't ignore the possible signs: mood swings, lethargy or declining performance at work or school. "Challenge the person, straight up," says Bova. "Sit them down and challenge them. And expect the denials."
The 194 prove it can happen to anyone, anywhere. For them and everyone touched by their loss, we must stand up to the challenge now.
If you need help confronting someone's heroin use, including your own, call Cuyahoga County's 24/7 Crisis Hotline at 216-623-6888.