December 17, 2014

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Lorain County sets record for fatal overdoses

A State Highway Patrol officer shows a bag of heroin seized in Vermilion earlier this year. CHRONICLE FILE PHOTO

A State Highway Patrol officer shows a bag of heroin seized in Vermilion earlier this year. CHRONICLE FILE PHOTO

Despite greater awareness, outreach and a pilot program to revive addicts, Lorain County fatal overdoses in 2013 topped the record-setting number in 2012.

There were at least 67 fatal overdoses from heroin, prescription pills or a combination of both in 2013, compared with 60 in 2012, according to Lorain County Coroner Stephen Evans. There were 22 each in 2010 and 2011.

Evans said the spike mirrors a trend in Ohio and nationally. As laws have tightened for prescribing pills, addicts have switched to heroin, which is cheaper and easily available on the streets. Evans said about 60 percent of deaths in 2013 involved heroin. In 2012, roughly 60 percent of deaths were from pills.

Evans, who partially blames increased addiction on pharmaceutical companies overprescribing painkillers to increase profits, said the typical fatality involved a white man between 20 and 35. While the vast majority of overdoses were in Lorain and Elyria, according to LifeCare Ambulance, Evans said the percentage of fatal and non-fatal overdoses in suburban communities is increasing.

“The face of overdoses has changed,” Evans said. “It’s no longer just an inner-city, lower socio-economic group that’s being bothered with it. It’s actually more common now in the middle class.”

Lorain police Sgt. Tom Nimon, head of the department’s narcotics unit, said it’s common for suburban addicts to drive to Lorain and Elyria to buy heroin. Nimon said Lorain police seized about a kilo of heroin this year which has a street value of approximately $100,000.

Nimon said seizures were up between 30 percent to 40 percent in 2013 from last year and at least 200 dealers or users were arrested. Users frequently buy a bindle of heroin, about 1/20th of a gram, for $15 to $20 or a gram for $180 to $200. Nimon said it’s common for low-level dealers to be addicts selling to support their habit.

Lorain Police Chief Cel Rivera said his department has switched emphasis from long-term investigations of major dealers to more street-level arrests. Rivera said the emphasis has improved the quality of life in Lorain.

Nonetheless, Rivera said police can’t “arrest our way out of the problem” and said there must be greater emphasis on treatment.

Thomas Stuber, Lorain County Alcohol Drug Abuse Services CEO and president, said the number of addicts treated by his group has increased about 60 percent since 2010. The group sees about 45 new clients per week compared with about 25 new clients per week in 2010 with many heroin or prescription pill addicts.

Stuber said the expansion of Medicaid in Ohio as part of ObamaCare will expand treatment this year. Stuber said his group will hire six more counselors and a doctor later this month.

Elaine Georgas, county Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services board executive director, said her agency will also expand treatment this year. The agency, which has an approximately $2 million annual budget, received an additional $165,000 from the state.

Georgas said the increasing deaths have heightened awareness. A series of community meetings about addiction were held in 2013 throughout the county and at least one community group was formed to formed to raise awareness. Georgas said more people understand addicts shouldn’t be shunned and addiction is a disease. “If we can work and treat it that way, we can have good success,” she said.

Georgas praised the pilot program approved by the Legislature in 2013 in Lorain County. It allows police to carry Narcan, a nasal spray that can revive addicts if used shortly after an overdose. Narcan is the brand name for naloxone, a synthetic narcotic that blocks the effects of opiates like heroin on the nervous system. At least 15 addicts were revived by police countywide through November, according to Georgas.

Rivera said police will continue using Narcan, but it’s not enough. Rivera, an officer since 1971, said society needs to have “an honest dialogue” about whether the “War on Drugs” and the drug prohibition has increased violence and whether decriminalization or legalization of heroin is warranted.

“They have to be open about is it time to legalize it and take the criminality out of it and thuggery and crime out of it,” he said. “I don’t know. I’m not sold on it, but it’s time to have that discussion.”

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