By Kevin Kelley
The first drug dealer teens encounter may be the medicine cabinet in their grandparents’ home.
That’s how Monica Robbins summarized the trend in which teens who abuse drugs begin with prescription medicines stolen from family members or friends.
Robbins, the medical reporter at Channel 3 News, moderated the “Heroin in the Suburbs” forum Nov. 6 at Westlake Porter Public Library. The forum was the second in a series organized by Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge Michael Astrab in response to the growing number of heroin-related cases he’s seen in the past couple of years.
“It is literally bogging down the legal system,” Astrab told forum attendees. “It’s bogging down the medical system.”
Westlake police officer Ken Delfing, the school resource officer and D.A.R.E. Program instructor at Lee Burneson Middle School, said warning children about the misuse of drugs should begin early. Children of all ages should be told medicine used by other persons could be harmful, he said.
“(Drugs) in the medicine cabinet are the ones getting the kids hooked on the heroin,” Delfing said. Leftover prescription painkillers left in the medicine cabinet by a parent or grandparent can be the start of a drug addiction, he explained.
Panelist Patrick Lavelle, a Cuyahoga County prosecutor, said an individual typically takes one of two paths to addiction. A person may begin abusing alcohol and move on to recreational illegal drugs before spiraling out of control, Lavelle said. Or a person may be prescribed painkillers for a legitimate injury or chronic pain, then seek harder drugs, he added.
The latter is what happened to Robby Brandt, according to his father, Robert. The younger Brandt’s addiction eventually led to heroin use, which caused his death in October 2011. His parents founded Robby’s Voice, an organization to raise awareness about drug addiction and offer support to families facing it. Robby showed signs of addiction that went unrecognized, his father said, because they had not been educated to look for them.
“He lied and manipulated his way through his addiction very, very well because that’s what they do,” Robert Brandt said. “And they’re really good at it.”
Another panelist, defense attorney Henry Hillow, said clean-cut young adults who grew up in the suburbs are among those who have fallen prey to the heroin epidemic.
“You’re talking about kids who were honor students,” he said.
He advises parents who seek his legal counsel following the arrest of a child not to bail him or her out of jail; the heroin user must face “rock bottom” before he or she is willing to seek help. Sometimes a night in jail will fulfill that requirement, he said.
On the question of where drug deals are taking place, Jeff Capretto, a special agent with the Westshore Enforcement Agency, said students know schools have a zero-tolerance policy for drugs and periodically conduct drug searches that include drug-sniffing dogs.
“They do it outside the school,” Capretto said, adding that drugs are often sold at parties at parents’ homes.
“The only thing that’s in the high schools are the connections,” added Robbins, who said she has lost three family members to heroin overdoses.
Drug users will go to either the near West Side of Cleveland or Lorain to purchase heroin, panelists said. Capretto said some dealers will personally deliver to the suburbs for a bit more money.
Panelists and audience members discussed just how much parental monitoring of teens is warranted. Some were in favor of parents being able to log in to their children’s Facebook and e-mail accounts and smartphones to make sure they are not involved in any illegal activity. But one 18-year-old girl reminded the audience that not all children are on drugs and said such parental snooping would destroy the trust between parent and child.
Antidote for heroin exists
Overdoses of heroin can lead to death because opiates bind to brain receptors that cause a user to stop breathing, according to Joan Papp, a physician at MetroHealth Medical Center. This leads to cardiac arrest and death, she said.
About 30 percent of heroin-related deaths in 2012 came after the user had established a period of abstinence, Papp said. Capretto noted that the purity level of heroin sold on the streets has been increasing. The increased purity is a danger, he said. A user may get clean for a while but have a relapse and take the same amount he previously used. But because the purity has increased, the same amount causes a deadly overdose, he explained.
But a drug exists – naloxone – that can quickly reverse the effects of an overdose. Earlier this year, Papp launched Project DAWN, a test program that distributes kits that include the overdose antidote to opioid users in the community. Kits are distributed on Fridays at the Free Clinic of Greater Cleveland and the Cuyahoga County Board of Health office in Parma.
“It’s a drug we’ve used safely in the emergency department, and EMS has used for years,” Papp said.
The Project DAWN kits allow a person who may witness an overdose to administer the drug quickly without having to involve law enforcement or medical professionals, Papp said.
“We know that many people don’t want to call 911,” Papp explained. “They don’t want to call anyone into the home because they’re afraid that they may be arrested. So this allows them rapid access to the overdose antidote and can allow them to save a life.”
For more information on Project DAWN, go to http://www.healthy. ohio.gov/vipp/drug/ProjectDAWN.aspx.