The Valley's heroin epidemic - Part #1

Since 2007, there have been more deaths in Ohio from drug overdoses than traffic crashes.

Here in the Mahoning Valley, what often begins with the abuse of pain medications evolves into heroin addiction.  So much so, that law enforcement has dubbed heroin use here an epidemic.

And there's a changing face of addiction in the Valley. 

Heroin is not just reserved for junkies and prostitutes, it's impacting nearly every segment of society.  Many of those buying the heroin are getting younger, and live in the suburbs.  More women are also falling victim to addiction.

It may be hard to believe, but heroin is the drug of choice, because it's cheap and easily accessible.

Alexis Norman is a recovering addict from Boardman, "I'm surprised I didn't die.  I had overdosed two days in a row, woke up in the hospital and I'm like, oh, that was really good stuff.  Let me get some more."

Mahoning County Assistant Prosecutor Marty Desmond says, "The problem with heroin is, once you use it, you're an addict.  It doesn't take repeated use."

Judge John Durkin has presided over Mahoning County's Drug Court for 15 years and says heroin is a serious problem, killing people of all ages, "It's not just a phrase that we are throwing out to frighten, this is an epidemic.  We are losing people every single day, dying from this disease."

This killer addiction, along with prescription pain pills is claiming lives in record numbers.

Dr. Humphrey Germaniuk, the Trumbull County Coroner, say he's investigated 15 overdose deaths in a 2-month period.  Sixty percent of those accidental overdose victims were white males, three were African-American males, and three others caucasian females.

"The youngest one being 21 years of age, the oldest one being in their sixties.  I pulled out cases from July 30th up until October 3rd, and this office has had a total of 45 cases during that time period.  Out of those cases, 15 are drug overdoses.  That's more than 30% of our caseload.  It's a tragedy, it's a horror show.  One of the things that we have found is it is destroying families.  You find children are dying from it, and grandparents are dying from it," Dr. Germaniuk said.

Heroin is a drug that does not discriminate.

Youngstown Police Officer Bob Patton, an agent with the Mahoning Valley Drug Task Force, says, "It doesn't matter who you are, police officers, doctors, lawyers, somebody you know, knows somebody who has somebody in their family that has a drug problem, and unfortunately most of the time today, it's pills and heroin."

Alexis Norman, now 20 months sober, knows from experience that anyone can become addicted, "I never thought that would happen to me, I went to a Catholic school, I had a good upbringing, I had everything I wanted.  Just because your family has money, or because you live in Poland, or you live in Canfield doesn't mean it's not going to happen to you."

A crackdown on prescription pain medications like Oxycotin, forced addicts to turn to the streets, replacing pills with heroin.

The illegal drug provides that same initial feeling of euphoria, and is cheaper and more easily accessible on the streets.

A hit of heroin can cost as little as $10.  In comparison, a single 80-milligram Oxycontin pill sells for $80 dollars on the street, or $1 a milligram.

Lieutenant Jeff Solic is the Commander of the Mahoning Valley Law Enforcement Task Force, "I think it's the number one threat to law enforcement, and really society."

And if you don't think the growing heroin problem affects you, you're wrong.  Local law enforcement officers say the addicts are getting younger, and the majority of home invasions, robberies and thefts are the result of addicts stealing to feed their addiction.

"If it's not 100% it's real damn close.  I can't think of anyone who's done a residential burglary or retail theft that hasn't been to support their drug habits," Lt. Solic said.

For Alexis Norman, who was once charged with being part of a heroin for burglary ring, her life is now back on track, and she's flourishing as a productive citizen in society.  However, she has a warning for others, "I used to say I'm never going to do heroin.  I'm never going to rob somebody.  And you know all those things just took over, it was so powerful, that I needed that drug, I didn't care what I had to do."

On Wednesday, WFMJ's special report on the "Heroin Epidemic" continues.  We'll take a look at what's being done to try and get a handle on the growing problem.

Click here to watch a video

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