We must end heroin epidemic

Published 9:51 am Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Unintentional drug overdoses claimed the lives of 2,482 Ohioans in 2014. That’s nearly four deaths every day, and an alarming jump – more than 17 percent – over 2013’s drug-induced fatalities.

Heroin infests every county in Ohio. No city, town, or village – urban or rural – escapes its clutches. In fact, Ohio is mired in the worst drug epidemic I have witnessed in my lifetime. In my travels around the state I hear stories from Ohioans whose lives heroin has turned upside-down. Their stories have made me determined to sound the alarm and do whatever I can to prevent other Ohioans from experiencing their pain.

But no government office, whether federal, state, or local, can single-handedly solve the heroin problem. We can’t arrest or convict our way out of it. We can, however, attack the heroin problem holistically and seek solutions collaboratively.

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But some obstacles aren’t easy to overcome.

For example, the psychological barrier – the hesitation even habitual drug consumers had about “putting that stuff in their veins” – has all but disappeared. Likewise, families may ignore drug abuse in their own homes, fearing what the CBS 60 Minutes segment “Heroin in the Heartland” called the “stigma and shame compounding the epidemic.”

That cautionary psychological barrier must be rebuilt. And families whose loved ones struggle with addiction must be encouraged to seek assistance.

Also, the drug cartels changed their business model and moved the market for heroin into the suburbs and small towns. Send the right text or make the right phone call and a dose of heroin can be delivered to your doorstep as conveniently, and for about the same price, as a deluxe pizza.

My office has taken actions to reduce the number of lives lost, families devastated, and communities diminished as a result of the damage heroin inflicts on our state.

In 2013 we combined some assets and created the AGO Heroin Unit to pursue opiate traffickers and support community leaders, law enforcement, and schools in their battles with the heroin epidemic. During the 2015 fiscal year we prosecuted more than 150 heroin-related cases.

Our Community Outreach Team has worked with community leaders in nearly every Ohio county. As part of the “Taking Back Our Communities: Combatting the Opiate Epidemic” conferences the team conducts around the state, they’re helping those leaders craft strategies and solutions.

Peace officers may now carry and administer Naloxone, an antidote that reverses an opioid overdose. To help defray the cost and make Naloxone more accessible, my office negotiated with the drug’s manufacturer – Amphastar Pharmaceuticals, Inc. – who agreed to provide rebates for Naloxone syringes bought by non-federal Ohio agencies. Last year we distributed $91,272 in rebates to communities throughout Ohio.

We’ve also responded to Ohio’s heroin epidemic outside the conventional “box.” For example:

My office produced Marin’s Story: The Battle Against Heroin, a powerful video about one young woman’s struggle with heroin addiction. So far the video has reached some 10 million viewers on social media.

Through a pilot project we’re funding in northwest Ohio, my office partnered with law enforcement and victim advocates in Lucas County to establish an innovative Drug Abuse Response Team.

The 60 Minutes segment I mentioned earlier also highlighted the work of our Bureau of Criminal Investigation.

In January we convened an emergency summit where hundreds of community, law enforcement, and public safety representatives from all over the state learned about new and successful ideas for fighting the heroin epidemic.

We supported CVS Pharmacies and Kroger when representatives of each retail chain announced their Ohio stores will sell Naloxone on an over-the-counter basis, making the antidote even more widely available to save Ohio lives.

We’ll continue to look for ways we can alert Ohioans about and engage them in this battle.

We’re stronger together than we are on our own. By sharing ideas and building on each other’s strengths we can diminish and ultimately defeat Ohio’s heroin epidemic.

Mike DeWine is the Ohio Attorney General.