How Pennsylvania’s heroin crisis arrived in my hometown

It’s an epidemic that’s growing exponentially across the US

Sooner rather than later, the heroin epidemic that is currently sweeping through the United States may directly or indirectly affect all of us.

Over the past 10-15 years, the number of reported heroin abuse cases has risen exponentially, and this trend still appears to be on an upward trajectory with unimaginable limits. According to a khn.org poll, about 40 percent of those surveyed know someone who is battling heroin addiction, with a large proportion of that group pointing out that a family member is the victim of addiction.

Specifically, this epidemic has been running rampant throughout the midwest and mid-atlantic regions of the United States (with some outliers), as this map from the CDC clearly illustrates:

cdc-map-heroin

Personally, living in the northeastern corner of Pennsylvania, I have heard countless news stories and personal tragedies regarding the dangers of heroin, and I also lost a friend and co-worker to an overdose earlier this year.

I have interacted with and met a plethora of individuals with first-hand experience fighting the heroin epidemic. I had the chance to interview two local individuals with unique proximity to and perspective on this nagging issue, one a rehab clinic admissions counselor and the other a detective with a local District Attorney’s office, both from Pennsylvania as well.

According to the admissions counselor, who has more than twenty years of first-hand experience in the fight against heroin, the problem has evolved over the past few years, and many states neighboring Pennsylvania provide her clinic with patients.

The counselor, who preferred to stay anonymous, says: “We treat equal amounts of patients from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut, and all [of these states] have the same heroin epidemic. The awareness and focus placed upon heroin recently is because of the potency of the heroin, and the drastic rise in the number of opiate overdoses and deaths.”

Also, she points out the victims of the drug have become more widespread over socioeconomic boundaries due to another fairly recent phenomenon of prescription drug abuse.

“When I began working,” she explains, “the demographic was usually 18-25-year-old adults. What has changed is the population we are treating. In addition to the young adults, we are also treating adults of all ages, educations, and economic statuses. Many are people who were prescribed pain medications.”

PA police released these harrowing images of two adults overdosing on heroin in a car with their child in the backseat

PA police released these harrowing images of two adults overdosing on heroin in a car with their child in the backseat

So what causes these individuals that are in need of painkillers to suddenly switch to heroin? The price, and its accessibility.

Our second frontline source is a detective in northeastern PA with 15 years of experience working with a local District Attorney’s office and many more years’ experience as a police officer. He says this drop in price is indeed pertinent, and in combination with this new price, the way in which heroin is being produced is different. This makes the drug even more dangerous.

When I started as a detective, heroin was 20 dollars a bag,” he says. “We are buying it bulk in undercover operations now for as little as three dollars a bag.” This drop in price has likely come as a result of increased demand for heroin, a consequence of increased crackdowns on opioid prescription drugs like oxycodone and Vicodin.

Instead of seeking these expensive and sometimes unattainable drugs they are prescribed, individuals will simply buy some heroin for less than a pack of cigarettes. As previously mentioned, heroin is now being produced synthetically by being cut with drugs like Fentanyl, a highly addictive narcotic.

In addition to the fact that heroin is cheap, easy to obtain, and now even more dangerous due to its synthetic nature, it has also become more popular across the board in terms of race, age, sex, and wealth. A vast number of celebrities have died due to heroin and opioid-related overdoses: Prince, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Corey Monteith, and so many more.

As this graphic from Penn Live shows how drugs killed by age and sex in Pennsylvania in the year 2013:

screen-shot-2016-09-25-at-1-41-13-pm

Source: PennLive

The statistics since then have only gotten more grim. With first-hand experience comes first-hand knowledge and information, and our law enforcement source clearly says this epidemic “knows no social, racial or economic boundaries.

Although men have accounted for nearly twice the amount of heroin-related deaths in recent years, the fact that about 1,000 women are also killed by drugs – mostly heroin and opiates – each year in PA is still very alarming and points to the drug’s lack of boundaries.

And, if eventually every state faces this problem, the US could see an annual death total due to drugs (again, a large portion due to heroin and opiates) of nearly 100,000. This is clearly a problem that must be addressed head-on, and the current policies and action being taken is certainly not enough.

Here in Ithaca, plans for a supervised heroin injection center are in place, and steps like this could lead to a steady decline in the number of addicts, deaths and tragedies. This problem, left unconfined, could spread rampantly and eventually could be a very real danger some of us will need to confront. But action now could lead to a resolution of the problems that the war on drugs could never solve.

Even if just one baby is prevented from being born an addict, or one coworker, or family member, or friend’s life is saved, isn’t it worth it to try a little harder, to think a little bit outside of the box?

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