The steady increase in heroin use and overdoses in Toledo and in Michigan’s Monroe County has prompted officials on both sides of the border to call for better addiction treatment, tougher enforcement, and increased public awareness to the burgeoning problem.
In Monroe, a partnership of three labor unions, law enforcement, and a statewide crime-stopper program was announced on Wednesday to battle what authorities are calling an epidemic of prescription drugs and heroin.
The unions, which have strong ties to the community, contributed $10,000 to a billboard campaign designed to bring awareness to the drug problems in the county.
Toledo Councilman Jack Ford, who formed Substance Abuse Services Inc. in 1980, released a detailed plan to combat heroin use as an addiction. He acknowledged that some of his proposals — such as re-establishing a long-term, addiction-care unit in Toledo — would be expensive at a time when the city is struggling to keep its budgets balanced.
Mr. Ford said officials need real, up-to-date data, which he acknowledged was not readily available. He suggested creating a “drug-abuse warning network” that would require treatment facilities and first-responders to report suspected heroin or other opiate use in Lucas County.
“We have been hearing and reading a lot about heroin upsurge and Oxycontin and other synthetic opiates and how that's impacting deaths statewide and even here in Toledo,” Mr. Ford said at a news conference on Wednesday.
“I think we need the return of a long-term addiction-care unit in Toledo,” Mr. Ford said. “Heroin is such that you cannot — and Oxycontin is frankly worse — you cannot kick that in a two-week, or even four-week stay.”
Statistics paint a disturbing picture of how widespread heroin has become and its deadly consequences, though some state reporting lags considerably.
About 24 percent of all unintended drug-overdose deaths for Ohio residents in 2011 were heroin-related, according to the Ohio Department of Health. That year, the most recently available statistics, 426 of the state’s 1,765 drug overdose deaths involved heroin.
The numbers represent a steep increase from 2000, when 71 of the state’s 411 overdose deaths were heroin-related.
In Toledo, police seized nearly 1,454 grams of heroin worth $399,570 in 2011; 3,371 grams worth $1.76 million in 2012, and 2,763 grams of heroin worth $1.54 million last year.
Police Sgt. Joe Heffernan said the potency of heroin increased dramatically from 2011 to 2012.
“China White heroin is is about seven times stronger than the brown heroin, and this is what’s causing all the overdoses,” Sergeant Heffernan said. “In 2011, less than 1 percent was China White, but in 2012 it moved up to 67 percent and 2013, it was in the 60 percentage range also.”
The Toledo Fire Department responded to 374 overdoses in 2013.
Coroners from 77 counties responded in mid-October to an Ohio attorney general’s office request for data, which indicated at least 620 heroin-related deaths in Ohio by that point last year.
The Lucas County Coroner’s Office tracks heroin-related deaths for the region served by its toxicology lab, an area that includes more than 20 counties.
The region had 15 heroin-related deaths in 2011, 31 in 2012, and an estimated 80 in 2013, according to Dr. Robert Forney, the county’s chief toxicologist.
Dr. Forney estimated that about 60 percent of those are cases in Lucas County.
He is awaiting results for a couple of cases from late last year before finalizing the 2013 numbers.
Most of the cases involved more than one drug, Dr. Forney said.
At the event in Monroe, John Broad, president and chief executive officer of Crimestoppers of Michigan, said addictions involving heroin and prescription drugs have become a huge problem in the county.
“More and more lives are being destroyed every day from these horrible drugs. Young, smart, talented, and hardworking people are having their lives cut short,” Mr. Broad said. “This epidemic is changing the entire face of neighborhoods. Law enforcement officials are doing all they can do to combat the problems.”
George and Sharon Barath of Monroe said they lost their only child to drug addiction.
Their son, Ryan, who was a graduate of St. Mary Central Catholic in Monroe and earned an academic scholarship to Wayne County Community College, battled a drug habit that began at age 20 with prescription drugs and ended at age 25 when he died on Sept. 26, 2012, from a heroin overdose.
“It was a five-year battle but we fought it. We were alone in this battle. We are proud the community is doing something,” Mr. Barath, who is a retired teacher, said. “This is the hardest thing that could happen to a parent.”
The couple said they wanted to participate in the campaign so that other parents would not have to endure the suffering and emotional pain that they went through.
“The leaders of this community have recognized a problem, and they want to do something about it,” Mrs. Barath said. “If I can show people what this drug can do, I am right there.”
Mike Jackson, executive secretary-treasurer of the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights, said he doubted some media reports that said the county had become the heroin capital of Michigan until he learned that a friend’s daughter went into rehab for her addiction to the drug.
Mr. Jackson, who grew up in the county, said heroin and other drugs steal productivity from people who live in the community.
“We are happy to do all we can in this effort,” he said.
“This is an epidemic,” said Bob Cebina, president of the Monroe-based UAW Local 723. “It effects everybody in our community, whether it be through the expense of preparing for this tragic event that is going on in our community, insurance, or the police force that could be doing other things rather than fighting the heroin epidemic.”
Dan Mitten, Treasurer of Laborers Local 499 in Ann Arbor, said he understands the effect that drugs have on lives because of the union members he knows who have struggled with addictions.
“Some of the things I have heard today really hit home,” Mr. Mitten said. “It is very concerning to me the epidemic we have here. When the prosecutor called me asking me to get involved I couldn’t jump fast enough. ... It is troubling to see how bad it is in the community.”
Michael Gessner, 31, a recovering heroin addict who volunteers at the Monroe County Substance Abuse Coalition, said statistics that confirm rampant drug use in the county are alarming.
“I love this community. I was shocked to see the change that happened. It is becoming everyday news for someone to overdose and die,” Mr. Gessner said. “They say it take as village to raise a child. It takes the same thing to overcome this addiction.”
The money the unions contributed to the campaign will pay for billboards to be put up in the community, raising awareness of the drug problem and urging people to report suspicious activity.
“Now more than ever people need to be the eyes and ears of the community,” Mr. Broad said.
The Michigan Department of Community Health reported 11 heroin-involved deaths from 2007 to 2011 in Monroe County. A total of 1,041 heroin-involved deaths took place in Michigan during those years.
Heroin is considered to be widely available in the Toledo region, according to the most recent report by the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.
“Heroin is cheap, pure, and readily available in virtually every region of the state,” said agency spokesman Eric Wandersleben.
In November, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine announced the formation of a heroin unit within his agency to assist law enforcement in fighting the drug deaths. The office has been holding statewide forums to connect with law enforcement and determine community needs. It also offers police training and help in prosecuting cases.
Mr. Ford’s recommendations for Toledo included re-establishing the Medication Education for Elderly, which would be educating seniors on how to handle painkillers and not to leave pills unattended in medicine cabinets; renewing efforts to police “pill-selling” at large housing units and area factories; establishing a hot line to report suspected “overprescribers” and locations where prescription pills or heroin are being sold and distributed, and scrutinizing area methadone detoxification programs for effectiveness.
He said Lucas County should hire a consultant or a short-term employee to pull programs together.
Mr. Ford was joined by Dr. David Grossman, Toledo-Lucas County health commissioner, and Toledo councilmen Larry Sykes, Theresa Gabriel, Tyrone Riley, and Sandy Spang.
“In times of financial austerity some of these programs seem very ambitious, but some of them also seem very doable,” Ms. Spang said.
By Ignazio Messina and Mark Reiter - The Blade, Toledo, Ohio (MCT)
Staff writer Vanessa McCray contributed to this report.
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