As many as half a million Americans are thought to be addicted to heroin.
Heroin and other opiates kill one american every 16 minutes. That’s more than traffic accidents.
Production in Mexico, America’s primary source for its heroin, has gone up 600 percent in the last ten years.
The epidemic is sweeping through safe, high income suburbs as well as low income neighborhoods.
Driving under the influence of heroin is more common in Cincinnati now than drunk driving.
Cincinnati: A Portrait of Middle America’s Heroin Crisis
Earlier this week, the Cincinnati Enquirer and its affiliate website, cincinnati.com, released a sprawling mosaic of detailed reporting on the heroin crisis in their metropolitan area.
The paper sent out over 60 journalists, photographers and videographers to document a week in the heroin world. They followed opiate users, law enforcement, recovery programs, children of addicts, 911 dispatchers and bereaved family members. What they found was devastating.
During the single week in July that they documented, there were 180 known overdoses and 18 deaths due to heroin and other opiates. That’s in the Cincinnati Metropolitan Area alone.
People of all ages and economic levels were addicted or actively using. Middle aged women in yoga pants and blue collar small business owners were just as likely to OD as those living under the interstate or prostituting themselves for a fix.
“These people are in a tough spot in their lives,” says Officer Tim Eppstein of the Cincinnati Police Department. “The goal isn’t to take them to jail. The goal is to connect them to services. But sometimes I’ll have to take people to jail.”
Different Approaches in Law Enforcement
Not everyone sympathizes with Officer Eppstein’s compassionate view. All over the Cincinnati Metropolitan Area, officers carry life saving doses of Narcan nasal spray. Narcan contains a drug called naloxone, which reverses the effects of opiate overdose. Police administer it to overdosed addicts to bring them back from the cusp of death.
But not in Butler County. There, Sheriff Rick Jones doesn’t let his deputies carry Narcan, believing that it’s not the job of the police to save addicts.
Protesters of Sheriff Jones’s policy say that saving lives should be the police’s highest priority. Counter protesters, supporters of Sheriff Jones, say that police do not give medicine, and addicts can buy their own Narcan.
A double dose of Narcan costs $75.
“Narcan isn’t the issue,” says Sheriff Jones. “The issues is the people that are dying and are doing these drugs.”
During the week of the Enquirer‘s reporting, Butler county residents suffered more overdoses than those of any other county in the greater Cincinnati area.
“I’m a very compassionate person,” Sheriff Jones says. “I see more than they do. I cry a lot, inside.” His department is the only in Southwest Ohio which won’t administer Narcan.
“I’m not apologizing for my stance. Not even this much. And–nor will I.”
Meanwhile, the downtown Campbell County Jail offers evidence based treatment to inmates. They get support like job training, housing assistance, medication and health checks for up to two years after leaving jail.
Some addicts have even deliberately been arrested in order to get access to this treatment.
Is the Heroin Crisis an Epidemic or a War?
These approaches show two schools of thought: first is a compassionate, treatment based approach that sees the drug crisis as a public health epidemic. The priority is to save lives.
Second is the criminalization of addicts and the view that they are at fault for their own addiction. The priority is tougher crackdowns and stricter sentences–a ‘war on drugs.’
The latter view was held by Reagan’s America when the crack cocaine crisis impacted poor, urban neighborhoods in the 1980s and ‘90s.
But the heroin crisis is affecting mostly small town and suburban residents. The nation’s response this time has been largely to soften on penalties, taking a treatment based approach that views addicts as wayward members of middle American families.
As the Crisis Grows, an Effective Strategy Remains Elusive
In places like Cincinnati, jails have inadequate space and resources to handle the volume of heroin users they receive from the court systems.
Babies born to addicted mothers–not necessarily active users–can have seizures, tremors and other withdrawal symptoms. They require special medical attention, and often end up in foster care, which adds to the strain on public resources.
Some private companies like Dorman Products in Warsaw, Kentucky, take it upon themselves to help. Dorman doesn’t shy away from hiring heroin users, and provides weekly support groups–on company time–for employees who are addicts or whose family members are addicts.
Commissioner David Painter of Cincinnati’s Clermont County has announced a lawsuit against wholesale pharmaceutical companies. Three out of 4 heroin addicts started their addiction by using prescription opioids. “The taxpayers are paying for this crisis, but they didn’t create this crisis,” says Commissioner Painter.
In a statement on cincinnati.com, editor of the Enquirer Peter Bhatia wrote:
“We undertook this work – spreading our staff throughout courtrooms, jails, treatment facilities, finding addicts on the streets and talking to families who have lost love [sic] ones – to put the epidemic in proportion. It is massive.”
He went on to say that “it is stressing our health-care systems, hospitals and treatment capacity.
“We set out to do this project to not to affirm or deny differing views on the cost of battling addiction and its impact. Rather, we set out to understand how it unfolds day in and day out. I believe you will find what we found to be staggering.”