September 23, 2014

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Police: Deaths linked to bad heroin

Five fatal overdoses in 10 days have authorities worried about a batch of highly potent or poorly cut heroin.

“We want to nip this in the bud to stop people from dying,” Dr. Stephen Evans, Lorain County coroner, said Friday. “It’s either purer than normal or it’s cut with something more toxic.”

Evans said there have been 20 fatal overdoses this year, about 13 of which involved prescription pills. The 20 overdoses were about double the number at this time last year. The five overdoses between April 25 and Friday all involved IV drug users, Evans said.

He said four of the men were in their 20s or 30s. Evans said one of the victim’s friends overdosed, but survived due to swift medical treatment.

The overdose spike is reminiscent of a few deaths within a short period in 2009 involving bad heroin from Detroit, said Chief Deputy Dennis Cavanaugh of the Lorain County Sheriff’s Office. He said some of the victims were found with needles still in their arms.

Cavanaugh is hopeful publicity can lead to tips and seizures if the recent deaths were from bad heroin.

“We want to prevent any deaths that we possibly can,” he said. “Unfortunately, we have a big wall to climb.”

The wall has grown substantially over the decade as use of prescription drugs and heroin has exploded nationally and in the county. In 2010, the pharmaceutical industry produced 69 tons of pure oxycodone and 42 tons of pure hydrocodone, according to The Associated Press. That’s enough to supply 40 5-mg Percocets and 24 5-mg Vicodins to every person in the nation.

In 2000, Lorain County Alcohol & Drug Abuse Services dealt with seven to 10 heroin addicts per year, according to its 2010 annual report. By 2010, the organization was seeing that many every two to three days.

“Last year, Lorain County had enough narcotics prescribed to provide every man, woman and child with between 50 and 75 doses,” the report said. “More and more, we are seeing individuals turn from prescription drugs to heroin because it is actually cheaper and easier to acquire. The impact of the crisis is felt in our schools, hospitals, businesses and courts.”

Lorain police Officer Chris Colon, who joined the force in 1999 and has been a narcotics officer since 2008, said 90 percent of the heroin addicts he interviews after their arrests said they started using prescription pills before turning to heroin.

“They’re being told, ‘If you take a pill and have a beer, you’re going to have a good time,’” Colon said. “They don’t realize in the process of doing that that their body’s getting hooked on that chemical.”

Colon said many addicts can’t afford pills. While one 80 mg OxyContin pill can cost $40 to $60 on the street, a bindle of heroin — about 0.34 of a gram — costs $10 to $20. A gram of heroin costs between $150 to $180.

Colon said heroin seizures were up in January and February in Lorain as suppliers attempted to meet increased demand. Colon said he hasn’t investigated any of the recent fatal overdoses, but said desperation is a common denominator among heroin addicts. He said they fear withdrawal, which he compared to getting the flu, only 100 times worse.

The fear makes addicts oblivious to the risks of getting fixed. Colon said he’s arrested addicts who began injecting heroin within a couple minutes of buying it.

“They’re not worried about the purity, if it’s good or if it’s bad,” he said. “They just need a fix so bad.”

Evans said it’s been painful dealing with the relatives of the recent overdose victims.

“It just tugs at your heart,” he said. “To be taken so quickly like that is just devastating for the families.”

Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or egoodenow@chroniclet.com.