The epidemic is?Heroin

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine recently announced a heroin epidemic has seized the state.

To combat the deadly drug and its steady increase in use, DeWine has formed a heroin unit made up of investigators, lawyers and drug-abuse specialists, according to a release issued by his office. Its goal is to assist in fighting issues associated with the heroin epidemic, such as crime, addiction and overdose deaths.

As part of its effort, DeWine's office also has issued a heroin contact list for law enforcement, community leaders and the public to help find resources and answer questions.

"I think it's a great idea. I think it was a long time coming," said Chuck Boyer, unit coordinator of the Seneca County Drug Task Force - METRICH Enforcement Unit.

Boyer said Seneca County has been battling heroin since 2008, about the same time the epidemic began in other Ohio counties.

"It's bad everywhere; it's not just Tiffin," he said.

According to DeWine's release, the state has seen the most dramatic increase in heroin within the last four years.

"Communities have to wake up. If you don't think you have a problem, you are probably wrong," DeWine said in the release. "Local law enforcement understands the problem. As I have traveled the state, over and over, sheriffs and police and coroners tell me how bad it is. Unfortunately, there are people out there who don't believe heroin is really in their communities. They don't want to believe that this can be them - that this can be their child who is addicted or who is going to die from a heroin overdose.

"The numbers tell a different story. We know that, at minimum, 606 families across this state were directly impacted in 2012 by a heroin death."

According to information from DeWine's office, in 2010, 292 heroin overdose deaths were reported in Ohio. In 2011, 393 were reported.

In Seneca County, heroin overdose deaths also have seen an increase. Boyer said just in the city of Tiffin, at least half a dozen heroin overdose deaths were reported this year.

He said that's an increase of about 80 percent from last year.

The county, however, with the highest rate of heroin overdoses in 2012 was Cuyahoga County. There, 161 overdoses were reported.

With rates so high, it is estimated 11 people die in Ohio every week from a heroin overdose, according to information from DeWine's office.

"Despite major efforts to fight the heroin epidemic on the state, local and national level, the problem is not going away, and people are continuing to die," DeWine said in the release.

Boyer said heroin use that can lead to death often begins with the abuse of prescription drugs.

"It's a very, very easy transition from opioid to opiate," he said.

Heroin also is cheaper than prescription pills, making it more appealing to a person addicted to prescription pills. Boyer said a bindle of powdered heroin, which is about 1/10 of a gram, costs around $20.

When heroin was introduced to Seneca County, it was often in the form of black tar heroin. Now, it's sold as a brown or white powder.

The bindle, which is a folded piece of paper, holds the powder and resembles a piece of Chicklet gum. Users mix the powder with water, burn it, cool it and then inject it intravenously.

Source cities for the drug include Toledo, Columbus and Detroit, Boyer said.

Boyer said the prevalence of heroin in the county has been consistent the last few years. About 80 percent of the task force's cases now are heroin-related.

So far this year, Boyer said, the task force has conducted 180 felony drug-related investigations. Last year's total was 143.

After the task force concludes its investigations, the felony cases then reach the prosecutor's office.

"We have a significant amount of cases that are heroin-related," Seneca County Prosecutor Derek DeVine said. "To say it's an increase or not, I don't know, but in the last two or three years, there have been a lot of heroin-related cases."

As assistant prosecutor in the 1990s, DeVine said he never dealt with cases involving heroin.

Then, the drugs of choice were cocaine, crack cocaine and marijuana. Now, heroin has come back with a vengeance, he said.

"Ten to 15 years ago, it was off the map. It wasn't something I dealt with as assistant prosecutor. Now, I deal with it every week," he said.

The heroin-related cases do not just involve trafficking or drug abuse charges, DeVine said. Some cases do not carry drug charges, but the crimes, such as theft or forgery, are committed to feed an addiction.

"It seems like every week, we have cases suspected to be or can proven to be (committed by) heroin addicts," he said.

Like Boyer, DeVine said heroin abuse stems from people who are addicted to prescription pain pills they started taking legally or illegally.

"They're so expensive and heroin so cheap," DeVine said. "It's the next floor down on the elevator of addiction."

In talking to defendants' families and attorneys, DeVine has learned the prescription pills that often lead to heroin abuse are Percocet or Oxycontin.

"For whatever reason, they couldn't afford to buy those drugs and they switch to heroin," he said.

Once addicted, however, it's a very difficult addiction to overcome, DeVine said.

"It's a very powerful drug," he said.

Boyer said three elements are needed to combat heroin in Seneca County. They include education, enforcement and rehabilitation.

Boyer said, ideally, more rehabilitation centers would be closer to the Tiffin area. Now, addicts have to drive to Bowling Green, Findlay or Toledo for treatment.

To educate the community on the dangers of heroin, the task force has been going into the community to speak about the drug.

"We're addressing the issue by increasing education and going out to the public and speak about warning signs," Boyer said. DeVine said he is hopeful

DeWine's heroin unit will be a success, just as the attorney general's office has had some success in battling prescription drugs.

"Hopefully, these efforts can continue in dealing with heroin," he said.

Originally published in the Advertiser Tribune on December 8, 2013.

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