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West Virginia Fighting a War Against Heroin Addiction, Overdose Deaths

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  Editor's Note: We are airing a four part series on West Virginia Public Radio, about the drug heroin and how it is affecting West Virginia. A recent Associated Press story reported the number of heroin deaths in the state have nearly doubled since 2010. In the first story, Ben Adducchio reports on why heroin is getting into the hands of so many people.

Since 2001, the number of deaths associated to heroin overdose have increased. According to statistics from the Health Statistics Center in the Department of Health and Human Resources, there were only 9 deaths in 2001, as compared to 67 in 2012.

Heroin is tan in color, and granular in texture, according to Carrie Ozalas in the West Virginia State Police Forensic Lab. She's the section supervisor of the drug identification section, so any heroin taken to the lab is sent her way.

"It comes in a small quantity.  Heroin when we get it, it weighs point zero one grams. A sugar packet is one gram. So it weighs a tenth of that. It comes in packaging, a wax paper bag called a bindle. A very small paper bag," she says.

"Sometimes it’s stamped with different marking. Something like 9 mm or Flintstones. Something that’s unique to the drug dealer, or the area where he’s coming from. We’ve seen them with all kinds of different things. Emblems for cars. Officers can tie those back to the areas where they initially came from.”

MORE THAN BEFORE

West Virginia's heroin is coming here from Mexico, according to law enforcement officials. It reaches Chicago, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Baltimore, and then trickles into the state from those cities.

And it's coming in like never before, Carrie Ozalas says.

“As far as heroin is concerned, I started in 2001 and in 2001 I rarely saw heroin. It was here, but it wasn’t here in a large amount. We saw more cocaine, cocaine base. That’s a lot of what we are seeing," she said.

"Now we are starting to see the heroin. The heroin has kind of replaced the oxycodone, we are still seeing them but we are seeing them a lot less than we were two years ago. The heroin, we’re seeing, it’s just crazy, how much we’ve seen of it. I would say two thirds to three fourths of the cases we are receiving right now on a daily basis are either all heroin or has heroin mixed into it.”

WHY PEOPLE ARE HOOKED

Dr. Carl Sullivan is the director of addiction programs at West Virginia University. He says opioids like heroin and prescription drugs do a lot of different things to the body.

They provide pain relief, euphoria, which is what most people are looking for, they also cause constipation, they cause your eyeballs to constrict. They do a lot of things, they relieve anxiety," Dr. Sullivan said.

Heroin is an opiod and it’s illegal but it wasn’t always that way. Dr. Sullivan says it was once legal to use heroin, and it was a substitute for morphine many years ago. Dr. Sullivan says heroin proved to be more addictive than morphine and doctors misjudged just how addictive it could be.

And not only is it addictive, Sullivan says it serves as a  substitute for pills when they aren’t available to people needing that fix.

OPIOID ADDICTION

Dr. Sullivan says 20 years ago, prescription opioids were given to patients seeking help for pain, at a fast rate. When people weren't able to get the medicine they wanted, they turned to heroin.

"We have a large group of patients who have been exposed to opioids and they are dependent on opioids. What’s come into fill that gap as the number of prescriptions has gone down is heroin," said Dr. Sullivan.

"Heroin is illegal, it is much cheaper to buy on the street than most prescription opioids were and heroin has met the demand for patients who can’t get the drugs."

And heroin is being used all over the state. According to the data from the West Virginia Health Statistics Center, 59 of the state’s heroin overdose deaths since 2001 occurred in Berkeley County, in the Eastern Panhandle, while 41 occurred in Cabell, and 30 were from Monongalia. Then Kanawha, and Jefferson round out the top 5.

 


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