When Emily Estrada stood in front of Judge Mark K. Wiest on Aug. 18, 2011, she was not ready to admit she had much of a problem.
But when he set her bond in Wayne County Common Pleas Court at a whopping $100,000 she was shocked.
“That was pretty much the day he saved my life,” Estrada said. “My charges were very serious … I was completely out of control.”
Estrada, 32, has lived in Wayne County all of her life. Today, she lives in Apple Creek and maintains a job at P. Graham Dunn.
She is also a recovering drug addict after years of suffering, and abusing her prescriptions.
As Estrada explained her story, she first started taking prescription drugs at the age of 17 for health issues, per her doctor. She was given a prescription for Vicodin.
“I had no real experience with drugs growing up,” Estrada said. But once she started taking Vicodin in order to cope with her pain, she quickly knew one or two pills would make her tired.
“If I take four or five, I don’t need to worry about anything,” Estrada said.
Estrada used Vicodin on and off for a few years in accordance with her prescription. When she was about 24, she first abused her prescription, a day she recalls vividly.
Estrada said she took a handful of her pills and it made her feel “just completely numb.” She did not particularly enjoy the feeling she got from Vicodin. Instead, she said she was in a place in her life where she wanted to go away.
She kept her experiences a secret from her friends and family though, and noted she was not engaged in the stereotypical “party scene” usually associated with drug culture.
Estrada said she would typically abuse her Vicodin prescription alone in her bedroom and didn’t know anyone else who did what she was doing. She continued going to work and tried to maintain her life as if nothing was going on.
She continued to abuse prescription painkillers and got to a point where she would take 60-70 pills in one day.
And this led to her going “doctor shopping” and fraudulently trying to obtain more and more pills, where she obtained a doctor’s DEA number and wrote fraudulent prescriptions to feed her addiction and desire to escape her reality.
Wayne County’s prescription problem
Over the past few years, the Medway Drug Enforcement Agency has increased its efforts and focused attention on people similar to Estrada who abuse prescription drugs.
Patricia Bintliff and Jim Garrett both work on Medway’s pharmaceutical diversion unit and have been bringing this message to various organizations around the community.
In 2013, Bintliff told members of Wooster’s Rotary Club, 22 percent of Medway’s drug cases revolved around prescription drug issues, as the single largest issue Medway investigated last year. Cocaine was No. 2 at 21 percent, and heroin was third at 18 percent.
Within the umbrella of prescription drugs, oxycodone and hydrocodone are the most abused drugs Medway sees locally.
As opposed to traditional street drugs such as heroin, meth, or cocaine, prescription drugs pose a completely different set of circumstances. And Bintliff said prescription drug use is on the rise for several reasons.
Prescription drugs can usually be obtained through insurance companies; but addicts of other drugs also obtain prescription drugs as a substitute, and pills are more reliable from a “purity” standpoint.
Plus, street values of prescriptions typically make selling pills a profitable enterprise.
Bintliff said typical value for oxycodone is $1 per milligram.
“It’s a sure thing,” she said of manufactured prescription pills. “And insurance will pay for it so (addicts) don’t need to steal money from mom (to support their habits).”
Here in Wayne County, prescription drug abusers can go “doctor shopping” like Estrada, or they can go through unofficial channels and local drug dealers who bring large quantities of opiate-based pills into the area as alternatives to heroin.
Don Hall, director of Medway, said previously that a recent round of indictments of local dealers spawned from the prosecution of Calvin Cunningham, 37, of Detroit, Mich., who imported large amounts of prescriptions into the area.
Hall explained that the indictments were mostly for trafficking in heroin and opiate-based prescription drugs, as confidential informants had been buying large amounts of heroin and oxycontin from mid-level people who dealt with Cunningham before he was sent to prison in January.
“Once the oxycontin was harder to come by, we started seeing lots of heroin,” he said, as the two drugs ebb and flow in their popularity, and availability, in Wooster and Wayne County.
But the reasons to investigate prescription drug crimes are important, Bintliff added, such as identifying addicts and getting them into proper treatment. They noted another key difference between people addicted to prescription drugs and others, such as meth, is prescription drug abusers show no external changes in their bodies.
Essentially, a person can appear to look completely normal but be a prescription drug abuser, vastly different from track marks on heroin addicts, sores from meth users and other outward signs an addict struggles with.
“The only way we are going to beat it is by educating the public,” Garrett said, as education efforts are one step in combatting drug abuse issues. “It’s not just a law enforcement problem … it also affects you.”
Medway also started Operation Safe Return in 2009, where “mailboxes” placed around Wayne County police departments accept expired prescription drugs. And the organization has seen a sharp increase in the amount of drugs dropped off. The pounds of drugs incinerated the first year amounted to 300, compared to more than 2,800 just a few weeks ago.
“When (Garrett) started in law enforcement, they never asked if anyone took any medications,” Bintliff said, when burglaries were investigated 30-40 years ago. “Now, it happens every day,” mostly to elderly victims, she explained.
Across Ohio, prescription drugs and heroin are top priorities of the Ohio Attorney General’s office.
A fact sheet from the AG’s office notes that the issue has reached epidemic proportions as unintended drug overdoses have overtaken car crashes as the No. 1 killer of Ohioans.
The death rate in Ohio from accidental overdoses has increased 440 percent between 1999-2011 (327 deaths to 1,765 in 2011), an increase largely ascribed to the rise of prescription drug abuse and the mixing of drugs.
Estrada was eventually sent to prison to serve her time for her felony charges which originated from her addiction in 2011.
She served one year of a three-year sentence at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, before Wiest granted Estrada early release from prison. She technically was allowed to apply for judicial release after serving six months, but was determined to finish the Hearts program in prison — a group setting of inmates where, as Estrada described it, the ladies “lay it all out there” — and “get to the bottom” of why she abused prescription pills.
In prison, Estrada developed friendships and began opening up and sharing her experiences after she realized she lost everything in her life, including her marriage and relationship with friends and family.
She learned to deal with her issues head on, instead of resorting to drugs to numb her from her life.
One component of her recovery is that Estrada developed a joy of running while in prison, which has carried over into her civilian life. She currently is a member of a running group with herself, others on probation in Wayne County, and some adult probation officers.
The group meets weekly and even ran a 5k race in May together with Judge Wiest.
Shortly before she was sent to prison, Estrada opened up to her family members about her addiction.
“I felt so ashamed and embarrassed for a long time,” Estrada said, adding she felt like she had “to be perfect” all of the time.
She is still repairing the relationships in her life and admittedly struggles with depression issues. She knows she can’t go around painkillers, or even substances like alcohol, and doesn’t put herself in those situations. “I think twice before using ibuprofen,” she said.
The difference now, she said, is she has the proper tools to deal with her demons and not resort to drugs when she feels overwhelmed in life.
She still does a lot of volunteer work by visiting inmates at the prison where she stayed and speaking with them. The ladies even developed an “alumni group” where they stay in contact and support one another in their lives and endeavors. Estrada also said her faith in God has helped her. “We’re a pretty good team,” she said.
But perhaps the biggest issue is opening up to herself and others.
“For me, reaching out (helps)… instead of shutting down,” Estrada said admitting she was a very private person and advised anyone struggling with addiction to start reaching out, too. “To open myself up is OK … it takes a lot of hard work,” instead of keeping her addiction and problems a secret.
Estrada has done extremely well on her probation and was even granted a one-week vacation to leave the state and visit friends earlier this summer.
“What my life looks like now is better than it ever could be,” Estrada said, as she is training to run a half-marathon later this year, hopefully with members from her running group.