LIMA — When clients battling heroin addiction feel lost and without hope, Joni Hollon and Danielle Snyder can relate. The two are peer recovery coaches. To be a recovery coach, you have to be in recovery. Hollon and Snyder earned their titles the hard way, restarting lives they had given over to a highly addictive drug.
They came out the other side of heroin addiction and are now part of a pilot program funded by Mental Health and Recovery Board of Allen, Auglaize and Hardin Counties attempting to get a handle on the epidemic of heroin abuse in the region and state.
The women say heroin is everywhere — cheap, easy to get, and very difficult to get off.
Connected to a rise in prescription medication abuse, heroin has gripped the region. The West Central Ohio Crime Task Force, comprised of officers in Allen, Van Wert and Paulding counties, has seen a skyrocketing number of cases connected to heroin. In 2009, the task force handled 30 cases. By 2011, the number doubled, to 61. By 2013, it had more than doubled again, to 157 cases.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine calls the use of heroin and crimes associated with it an epidemic in the state. After announcing it in November, DeWine launched a new unit on Wednesday to help combat issues associated with the heroin epidemic, such as crime, addiction, and overdose deaths.
DeWine surveyed 47 county coroners in Ohio and came up with the following data:
•2010: 292 heroin overdose deaths
•2011: 395 heroin overdose deaths
•2012: 606 heroin overdose deaths.
“Communities have to wake up. If you don’t think you have a problem, you are probably wrong,” DeWine said. “New data our office has gathered suggests 11 people die in Ohio every week from a heroin overdose.”
Prescription meds to heroin
Hollon didn’t die, because she was incarcerated for six months instead.
“I was lucky and got to go to jail. I thank God every day I went to jail. It might be the only reason I’m still here,” she said. “One day, I woke up and didn’t think, ‘I want to get high today.’ It takes time to get your strength back, to get your brain back.”
A doctor prescribed Vicodin to Hollon after a car accident. It didn’t take long to become addicted, and she moved from the prescription opiate to Heroin.
Snyder also was prescribed an opiate by a doctor. She was given Oxycontin for gynecological issues for two years.
“One day they decided we’re not going to give them to you any more,” Snyder said. “That was my first time in a detox center. I didn’t know what was going on.”
Snyder lost custody of her two children. She has since regained custody. As peer counselors, both women represent hope to their clients.
“They have someone to look to, and say, OK, you have four years [being clean], I can see hope,” Snyder said.
After a few months on the job, Hollon agrees.
“That’s what we are; we’re proof you can get over it, you can make it,” Hollon said.
The coaches don’t just share their own stories; they pull people up, nudge them when necessary (including talks with probation officers) and support them, even when no one else will.
Recovery Board Executive Director Mike Schoenhofer shared a story about a client who didn’t show up for a medical appointment; Health Partners of Western Ohio health center staff in Kenton called the coaches.
“They went out looking for her,” Schoenhofer said.
An addict attempting recovery doesn’t know where to begin, Snyder said.
“They’re clueless. We help them set a goal, reach it and start on a new one,” Snyder said. “When a woman came to me in November, she was living in a motel and had lost custody of her children. Now she has her three boys back in an apartment. I helped her move furniture.”
A highly addictive drug
Heroin is a white or brown powder or a black, sticky goo. It is processed from morphine, a naturally occurring substance extracted from some kinds of poppy plants. It is an opiate, along with morphine, codeine, Oxycontin, Percocet and methadone. Heroin can be injected, smoked or snorted. All of these ways send the drug to the brain very quickly, which makes it highly addictive.
Heroin users report feeling a surge of euphoria followed by a twilight state of sleep and wakefulness. Regular use of the drug leads to tolerance; users need more and more of the drug to achieve the same effect. Because heroin users do not know the actual strength of the drug or its true contents, they are at high risk of overdose or death. Also, people who inject the drug risk getting infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS and hepatitis.
The drug is easy to get and cheap. Heroin scores a perfect 10, on a regional availability scale of one to 10 from participants in the Ohio Substance Abuse Monitoring Network. It is cheaper in larger cities, typically $10 for a tenth of a gram. The price increases for a smaller dose father away from places such as Dayton and Columbus, but still sells for $20 to $25 for a tenth of a gram, a small amount of powder, for example, that fits inside a pill capsule.
“Some places you can go with whatever money you have and get a little something,” Hollon said.
The cost is all relative. For people who turn to the drug after becoming addicted to prescription opiates, heroin is much cheaper. At the height of her addiction, Snyder said she needed eight to 10 80-milligram pills a day. She needed that amount, not to get high, but just to not be sick, which is a significant health effect of opiate addiction. Prescription meds are expensive on the street; they could cost her $60 a pill. However, an equivalent dose of heroin cost $25 or less.
Crossing the border
The increased use of heroin is a national issue, as availability of the drug continues to rise, likely because of high levels of heroin production in Mexico and Mexican traffickers expanding markets in the eastern and Midwestern United States, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency’s 2013 National Drug Threat Assessment Summary.
The amount of heroin seized each year at the southwest United States-Mexico border has increased 232 percent from 2008 (559 kilograms) to 2012 (1,855 kilograms). The seizures correspond with increasing levels of Mexican production and South American-produced heroin through Mexico, according to the DEA’s summary.
Heroin-related overdoses and overdose deaths are increasing in some parts of the country because of an increase of high-purity heroin available at the street level; people addicted to prescription opiates are switching to heroin; and more people, and younger people, are using heroin.
In the region, Dayton is a heroin hub; it is cheap there and often a local source for distribution.
Speaking about a Tuesday arrest of a St. Marys man for delivering heroin from Dayton to the region, Auglaize County Sheriff Al Solomon said the heroin problem is escalating in this area.
“We are working hard at getting the source of the drug. This is a typical case of someone going to the Dayton area and buying the heroin to be sold in this community,” Solomon said.