November 26, 2014

Elyria
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County drug use reaches epidemic proportions as overdoses skyrocket

Dillon Starnes chose jail over heroin. Homeless and facing the prospect of spending the night at a house full of junkies and relapsing, Starnes on July 11 sat outside his mother’s home in violation of a temporary protection order she had against him and told police when they arrived that he wanted to get clean in the Lorain County Jail.  v  “There’s no help around here. They just give you the runaround,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s pretty sad I had to put myself in jail to get help.”

Starnes, who said he’s been clean since July 5, is one of a growing number of prescription pill or heroin addicts or recovering addicts around the county, state and nation. Drug overdoses are the leading cause of death in Ohio since 2007, according to the Ohio Department of Health.

There were 1,544 fatal overdoses in Ohio in 2010, compared to 327 in 1999, a 372 percent increase. About four addicts fatally overdose per day in Ohio, about one every six hours.

Lorain County has not been immune. Fatal overdoses from heroin, cocaine, pills or a combination of those drugs have skyrocketed this year. There were 39 fatal overdoses through Sept. 2 compared with 22 for all of last year, 20 in 2010 and nine in 2009.

“It’s mushrooming, and we’ve got to do something,” said Dr. Stephen Evans, Lorain County coroner. “We have to stop these deaths.”

Besides the emotional cost, the deaths have also taken a deep financial toll on the coroner’s office.

The office, which has five doctors including Evans and an annual budget of $419,000, has had to do far more autopsies, blood tests and transportation of corpses.

“It’s going to bankrupt my office,” Evans said. “We’re rapidly running out of money.”

‘You have to change everything’

Among the deaths was Daniel Pohorence on April 11 in Oberlin. Poh0rence, 42, was found by his son, D.J. Pohorence, 21, also of Oberlin.

The two had used drugs together in the past and the younger Pohorence said he at first used his father’s death as an excuse to binge on heroin.

D.J. Pohorence, said he started using pills at 15 before switching to heroin when he could no longer afford pills, a common route for addicts.

The cost of one pill on the street is about $1 per milligram and one pill is often 80 milligrams. A bindle of heroin — about 0.34 of a gram — costs $10 to $20. A gram of heroin costs $150 to $180.

The more addicts use drugs, the more their tolerance to them grows, meaning they need more and more to get high. And addicts who relapse after coming out of rehabilitation are in danger of overdosing, according to Thomas Stuber, CEO and president of LCADA, which stands for Lorain County Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services. He said they often use the same dosage they needed before going into rehab not realizing their tolerance has decreased.

Pohorence said he said he has been clean since April 18 and is trying not to end up like his father, a longtime addict.

“He wouldn’t want to see me ruin my life and end up like his,” Pohorence said.

But Pohorence said he also recognizes maintaining sobriety is ultimately up to him.

“You’ve got to want to change. You can’t have other people wanting it for you because that’s not going to work,” he said. “If you’re trying to stay sober based off of fear of like court or something like that, that’s still not going to be enough. You have to change everything and have the willingness to do that.”

Kellie Foster, Pohorence’s mother, said she never saw her son’s addiction coming despite his father’s problems. Foster said she had little contact with Daniel Pohorence, but is close to her son.

She attended PTA meetings and his ballgames and warned him about hanging out with kids who might be into drugs. Foster said when she learned of her son’s addiction three years ago, it was like a bomb exploding.

D.J. Pohorence was attending Notre Dame College in South Euclid on an athletic scholarship for bowling and golf and he was getting A’s and B’s despite his addiction. Pohorence — now working part time as a cafeteria worker at Oberlin College and as a stocker at Walmart — had to drop out of college to go into rehab after his sophomore year and is about 12 credits shy of an associate degree.

Foster said she naively believed a 28-day stay in-patient treatment would cure her son, but soon learned otherwise. D.J. Pohorence has been through nine rehabilitations and subsequent relapses.

Depressed over losing his car and scholarship, Foster said the longest her son could stay clean was two weeks after rehabilitation — forcing her to repeatedly kick him out of the house.

“Since he started using at 15 years old, it’s like he’s programmed that any time he had an unpleasant thought or anything unpleasant, that he didn’t have to think about it if he did drugs,” she said. “Instead of dealing with the pain, I’m going to go and use.”

Foster credits the Lorain County chapter of SOLACE, Surviving Our Loss and Continuing Everyday, a parental support group, for helping her deal with her son’s addiction. Through the group and a 12-Step program, Foster said she realized she has no control over his addiction.

“I’m kind of a control freak. I’m the type where there’s a problem, I fix it, done,” she said. “That practice does not work.”

‘We can’t arrest

our way out of this’

Foster blames the addiction epidemic on pharmaceutical companies over-marketing pills to increase profits and some doctors over-prescribing pills.

In 2010, the pharmaceutical industry produced 69 tons of pure oxycodone and 42 tons of 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. Enough narcotics were prescribed to provide every, man, woman and child in Lorain County with between 50 to 75 doses annually, according to Stuber.

When Stuber was appointed the nonprofit group’s CEO and president in 1999, he said the group treated about seven heroin or prescription pill addicts per year.

“Now we’re seeing that every three days,” he said. “They are not responding to low levels of treatment. They need fairly intensive services.”

Last year, a new law designed to crack down on prescription pill abuse though “pill mills” was passed by the Ohio Legislature. Beginning in June of last year, “pain management clinics” had to be licensed by the state Board of Pharmacy as a “terminal distributor of dangerous drugs.” Licenses of abusive clinics can be suspended without hearings before the State Medical Board and $5,000 fines imposed by the pharmacy board and $20,000 fines by the medical board.

The law also contains $5,000 fines for doctors who prescribe more than more than 2,500 dosage units to a patient in a 30-day period and limits the dosage a patient can receive in a 72-hour period to the amount necessary for the patient’s use.

The law also requires more extensive reporting by pharmacists on the prescriptions for controlled substances they fill. They must file a report within five days to a pharmacy board data base known as the Ohio Automated Rx Reporting System, or OARRS. Doctors, pharmacists and police have access to the data base.

Addicts use various ways to try to get around the law, including filing false police reports to convince doctors to refill their prescriptions.

“How many times have I been out to your house for stolen prescriptions?” an exasperated Lorain police officer asked a woman at the Police Department in May of last year. “How many times have you filed a report for stolen medication? Five times?”

The pale woman in her 30s was rail-thin with dark circles around her eyes, stringy blond hair and bruises on her legs. Stammering, she denied filing false reports and told a rambling story in a monotone voice about her pills being stolen after she was knocked unconscious in a car accident.

The woman eventually left the department after the skeptical officer told her to file a report online.

“Then you can show that to a doctor to get a prescription,” he said.

Addicts also lie about being in pain to get their prescriptions filled. Foster said her son was able to use minor pain as a ruse, and she’s witnessed doctors irresponsibly giving out prescriptions herself.

“Opana was originally manufactured for cancer patients,” she said. “Now, why is it being prescribed (on) a whim?”

While Foster is skeptical, Detective Greg Mehling — a member of the Lorain County Sheriff’s Office  assigned to the Lorain County Drug Task Force since 1999 — said the new law has been effective.

He said the task force is receiving more calls from doctors and pharmacists about suspicious patients and customers. Evans agrees about the law’s effectiveness, but said it has had an unintended consequence.

Evans said the harder it is for addicts to get pills, the more they will use heroin, which has seen its potency increase and cost decrease in recent years. Evans said the county’s high unemployment rate has also fueled depression and desperation leading more people to self-medicate.

Breaking the news of an unexpected death is one of the toughest jobs for a coroner, and Evans said the rash of fatal overdoses has been particularly hard for him emotionally because many of the victims were between the ages of 15 and 35.

“The worst thing that can happen to a parent is to have their child die before they do,” he said.

Evans and Mehling both say while enforcement is necessary, more money must be spent on treating addicts instead of incarcerating them. About 25 percent of the nation’s approximately 2.3 million prisoners were convicted of drug crimes, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Of the 20,682 commitment offenses for people entering Ohio prisons last year, 5,127, about 25 percent, were for drug crimes, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. It costs about $69 per day to house each of the nearly 50,000 inmates in Ohio prisons.

Experts say the number of prisoners incarcerated for drug-related crimes may actually be higher because many property and violent crimes were committed by addicts seeking money to buy drugs.

A 2010 study by the Center for Substance Abuse at Columbia University estimated 1.5 million, or 65 percent of the nation’s prisoners, were addicts and only 11 percent received treatment. The report also noted that in 2005, federal, state and local governments spent $74 billion on incarceration, court proceedings, probation and parole for substance-involved adult and juvenile offenders and less than 1 percent of that amount — $632 million — on prevention and treatment for them.

“You’re never going to totally turn off the supply,” Mehling told SOLACE members at a June meeting in Avon. “We can’t arrest our way out of this.”

Stuber’s group, formed in 1980, has an approximately

$4 million annual budget and about 84 employees. The group, which is anticipating state budget cuts, served about 2,400 clients last year. It has three facilities in Lorain and one in Elyria,

The group’s 16-bed facility for women and their children in Lorain has room for 32 beds but a federal law restricts expansion because of neighborhood safety concerns.

Stuber said he’s working with U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton, D-Copley Township, and the Ohio Department of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services to get the law changed. Stuber said the department on Wednesday agreed to form a task force to submit a waiver to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to approve the expansion.

‘I just wanted

a normal life.’

Starnes, the man who deliberately got himself arrested in an attempt to get clean, said he avoids group therapy sessions at LCADA because some of those attending the meetings are still using drugs and get high after the meetings.

“You’re meeting people that are still using that are in your shoes,” he said.

However, Starnes said he regularly attends Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings to stay clean, despite worrying about associating with fellow recovering addicts.

Starnes said his time in jail was frustrating. He said there weren’t enough slots for treatment and many of the people who were mandated to attend rehabilitation classes didn’t want to be there.

Starnes, 21, of Lorain, has been abusing drugs for nearly half his life.  He started smoking marijuana at 11 and started using prescription pills like codeine, Oxycontin and Percocet  and cocaine at 14.

He got clean while spending nine months in custody of the Department of Youth Services, but relapsed soon after his release, smoking and selling marijuana and using Ecstasy. Starnes, who said he’s good with his hands, said he did odd jobs to help feed his habit.

At 16, he was snorting heroin.

Starnes said he quit heroin at 17 and left Lorain County for Millersburg in Holmes County a couple years ago. He and his girlfriend had a son in November 2010, but after breaking up with her he returned to the county in March and started injecting heroin.

To Starnes, it seemed as if everyone in the county was hooked.

“You’ve got 12-year-olds and 13-year-olds in Amherst getting high on heroin and shooting dope,” he said.

Besides attending meetings, Starnes said he needs the routine of working regularly. Starnes said when he comes home from work, he just wants to sleep rather than go out and party. On the weekends, he said he hangs out at non-alcohol juice bars. Starnes said he recently got full-time roofing work and is moving to Elyria to avoid running into addicts he knows in Lorain.

On Aug. 7, Starnes pleaded no contest in Lorain Municipal Court to an amended charge of disorderly conduct over the protection order violation in exchange for a 30-day suspended sentence.

“The 15 days I spent in jail got my head right,” he told Judge Mark Mihok . “I just got a job and I’m trying to get my own place.”

Starnes said he wants to be there for his son, Leland, in the way his father, Robert Starnes Jr., wasn’t. Robert Starnes is a convicted bank robber serving a 15-year federal sentence after being convicted last year of robbing three banks in 2010. Robert Starnes has a long criminal history, and his son remembers his jailhouse tattoos from visiting him in prison as a young boy.

Starnes said he hoped to reunite with his father when he first got out of prison, but his father split up with his mother shortly after his release.

“That really crushed me,” he said. “I just wanted a normal life with my father. Being able to play baseball and him coming to my wrestling meets. None of that ever happened because he was too busy using drugs and going to jail.”

While acknowledging he can’t do it alone, Starnes, like D.J. Pohorence, said he knows it’s ultimately up to him whether he stays clean.

“It comes down to do I want this couple seconds of being high or do I want a life for me and my son?” he said. “I want to be a dad to my son. I guess I have to man up and stop moping around and do what I have to do.”

However, talking about staying clean and sober is far easier than doing it. On Aug. 23, a little over two weeks after Starnes spoke of turning his life around, he was arrested and charged by Lorain police with disorderly conduct by intoxication, persistent disorderly conduct and obstructing official business.

Starnes was accused of “delaying and hindering” an investigation into an argument in a home before being arrested, according to a police report.

Starnes is due back in court Thursday. If he returns to jail, it may not be by choice.

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