By Nicole Hennessy
Pain used to be a symptom of an ailment. Now it’s multiple diseases that can be solved or bettered by medication.
Noreen Kyle, a school prevention specialist with the Westshore Enforcement Bureau (WEB), notices this now more than ever. She watches in horror and confusion as commercials advertising pain or psychological medications give the impression of quick fixes to both accepted and vague conditions.
“What about the economy?” she suggests as another reason for pain medication abuse. “Dad has a bad back,” she offers, but “he has to go to work.”
Mostly, though, she notices the commercials, bright and cheery, and so ingrained in American culture that the possibility of addiction is an afterthought.
More people in Cuyahoga County died last year of drug overdoses than in motor vehicle accidents, and more deaths were related to heroin than homicide, reported the medical examiner’s office.
In response to this, public officials and groups like WEB – a drug task force serving six Westshore communities, Bay Village, Fairview Park, Lakewood, North Olmsted, Rocky River and Westlake – have begun organizing more and more to get the word out to the public.
As the severity of this situation increases, so does the need for programs focused on prevention.
That’s why Kyle works with students in the Westshore area, informing them about opiates and how the legal versions can spiral into illegal versions like heroin addiction. Through programs hosted by the organization, Kyle warns youth about taking friends’ or parents’ prescriptions and thinking they’re harmless because they’re legal.
“People feel safe taking medicine from a doctor,” she explained. “I don’t think a lot of people visit the doctor intending to get addicted to (the medicine).”
Unfortunately, that is what happens to many users of opiate-based medications. And when an addiction becomes serious, heroin is a cheaper option with similar effects.
Prescriptions on the Rise
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, more and more doctors began prescribing opiate-based pain relievers like Oxycontin.
From 1999 to 2009, sales of opiate pain relievers (in kilograms/10,000) went from a rate of two to nearly eight. As the sales increased, so did treatment admissions and overdoses. Noticing these trends, steps were taken by multiple organizations to reduce the sale of opiates. A population addicted to them, which could no longer obtain or pay for the costly pills, turned to the illegal version – heroin, the exact pattern Kyle warns students of.
Not only has heroin use increased in the past decade, but the demographics of users has gotten broader.
For instance, in 2007 overdose deaths among the age range of 19-29 accounted for just 7.5 percent, while in 2011 that percentage increased to 25 to 30 percent.
Another group that saw an increase in overdose deaths were women. In 2007 they accounted for six cases, and grew to 25 in 2011.
In total, 2012 saw 159 heroin-related deaths. That number is expected to rise slightly as a few more toxicology reports are completed. More than half of these overdoses occurred outside of Cleveland, or in suburban cities like those in the Westshore area.
In Cuyahoga County District 1, five of the overdoses occurred in the area compared with five in 2011, six in 2010 and two in 2009.
Earlier in February, Dr. Tom Gilson, the county medical examiner, gave a lecture at a Bay Village town hall meeting, sharing with the attendees what exactly heroin is, as well as the numbers represented above.
He says he knew he had to do something to reach out when he realized that the number of overdose increased so dramatically that he and a co-worker began noticing it during their day-to-day work.
The local police blotters and news headlines reflect this as well. For example, an apartment building in Lakewood reported two overdoses in less than a month.
Nationally, while the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that adolescent cigarette smoking and alcohol consumption stood at historic lows for 2011, it also reported that “illicit drug use in the United States has risen to its highest level in 8 years.” That doesn’t even account for 2011 or 2012, as the survey their findings were based on was completed in 2010. And while many would dispute the dangers of marijuana use (for adults), the substance was included in the definition of “illicit.”
Other cities and states, such as Chicago and Kentucky (and the list goes on), are also seeing heroin addiction spread to the suburbs and afflict younger users. As here in Ohio, where suburbs like Bay Village, Rocky River and North Olmsted are experiencing a noticeable increase in use and overdose, task forces are being formed all over the country.
Cuyahoga County now has its own opiate task force, and legislators in Columbus have been coming up with ways like this to cope with the problem, which can no longer be ignored.
Councilman Dave Greenspan said, “We’re very alarmed.”
In following the subject, intent on understanding how widespread it was and how to best eradicate it, what alarmed him the most was that every part of the county was affected.
“Obviously, there’s a drug issue that’s in our community at large,” he said, “not just in Northeast Ohio, but in the rest of the country.”
– In 2007, there were 40 heroin deaths
– In 2008, there were 64 heroin deaths
– In 2009, there were 64 heroin deaths
– In 2010, there were 90 heroin deaths
– In 2011, there were 107 heroin deaths
(Numbers for Cuyahoga County)