Heroin and opioid addiction are unlike any drug problem we’ve faced before, and it’s time to start treating it differently.
That’s the message we hope you get when you finish reading The Lima News’ four-day series, “Heroin: A different kind of addiction,” which begins Sunday and runs through Wednesday.
As you read these accounts from addicts, academics, law enforcement and politicians alike, you realize how different the heroin epidemic in Ohio is from our perceptions about drug abusers.
These aren’t usually stories about people who begin recreationally, as you might see with alcohol, marijuana or cocaine. In many cases, these addicts get their first dose quite legally, through a doctor’s prescription. Then they lose control.
“Pain pathways run through our emotional centers before they’re perceived,” said Dr. Brad Lander, an addiction specialist at The Ohio State University. “Most of the problems with pain is their beliefs about the pain. ‘I can’t stand being in pain, I shouldn’t be in pain, I need to have these drugs to feel better.’”
Once that legal opioid hits your system, it likely reprograms your brain. Once your body and brain believe they can’t live without the drug, the depths of your decline know no bounds. You might turn to the streets to buy it once your prescription ends. You might settle on a lower-cost alternative, such as heroin. Before long, you’re committing crimes and making other bad decisions.
“Once they get addicted to this, the addiction is so strong, and it seems to last so long, they have to have some treatment and support mechanism or they’re almost guaranteed to go back,” said Putnam County Sheriff Tim Meyer.
That’s what makes the opioid abuse problem so unique and so perplexing. It’s not like some other drugs, where simply going cold turkey for a little while retrains your body to live without it. It’s a longer process.
There have been efforts to combat this drug, sometimes with unexpected consequences. A 2006 Ohio law meant to reduce people from “pill shopping” kept them from getting the drug legally but led to the rise of street heroin in the state. During a more recent crackdown, opioid prescriptions dropped 11.6 percent from 2012 to 2015, yet the number of arrests around the drug continues to rise.
“In 20 years, I’ve never seen anything like this, this massive number of people who are just addicted,” said Michael Schoenhofer, executive director of the Mental health and Recovery Services Board of Allen, Auglaize, and Hardin Counties. “There’s no one agency that can manage it. It’s like if you had a tornado hit or a natural disaster.”
It’s a complicated issue, with solutions needed from law enforcement, the medical community and the drug treatment community.
Most of all, it’s an issue the public needs to face and embrace. It’s much easier to fall into this addiction and dive deeper into its throes. We need to be more sympathetic, less judgmental and more eager to help.
Urge your elected officials and local organizations alike to dedicate money and volunteerism to help with treatment of opioid addictions. Support levies for mental health and addiction recovery organizations. Know and understand the signs of heroin abuse, and help the people in your life before it’s too late.
We’re ill-equipped to fight this, with 53 people a week fatally overdosing in Ohio, including one or two a week right here in Allen County. It’s stressing a mental health system unable to keep up with the demand. The answer can’t be the tactics of the so-called “War on Drugs.”
“You’re going to have to treat the problem rather than just try to arrest your way out of it,” Meyer said.