Communities battle heroin and opioid epidemic nationwide
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battle heroin and opioid epidemic nationwide

From coast to coast, a vicious scourge of heroin- and opioid-related overdoses and deaths are occurring in both large metropolitan cities and small rural communities. This epidemic, which has been growing for the past five years, is, through the impact of sheer numbers, causing collective alarm across the U.S. Activists, community collaboratives, local churches and concerned citizens are gathering and mobilizing to do battle against this formidable foe.

Vermont announced in August 2014 that it was quitting the war on drugs, admitting defeat, and will now treat heroin abuse as a health issue. Governor Peter Shumlin devoted his entire State of the State address in January to what he called a “full-blown heroin crisis.” Vermont has witnessed a 250 percent increase in addicts receiving treatment for heroin addiction since 2000. Courts in the state are congested with heroin-related cases. Along with his proposal to crack down on traffickers, Shumlin also proposed comprehensive addiction prevention programs in schools and doctor’s offices. “We must address it as a public health crisis,” he stated.

In Ohio, multiple counties are waking up to find their communities riddled with heroin and opioid overdoses, deaths and related crime. In 2010, rural Scioto County in south-central Ohio was saturated with a prescription pill epidemic that was so prevalent that county officials declared a public health emergency. “It was awful,” stated Lisa Roberts, a registered nurse at the Portsmouth City Health Department in Scioto County. “The place was just crop-dusted with opium … (Pain pills) became a form of commerce here. Pretty much everyone I knew had an addicted kid.”

Two small Ohio counties, Butler and Warren, have witnessed a steady rise of heroin- or opioid-related overdoses, with heroin use skyrocketing 74 percent from 2009 to 2012. Community activists are responding, creating Coalition for a Healthy Middletown. Program director, DeAnna Shores said, “It’s time to start removing children from homes where known drug addicts live, so the children have at least a chance.”

New York City happens to be the heroin capital of the country, with 20 percent of all heroin confiscations and arrests nationwide occurring in that city. Ninety percent of New York’s heroin originates in South America and Mexico. Columbia poppy fields grow the raw opium, secret labs in the jungle process it and Mexican drug cartels smuggle the heroin through the Caribbean or across the U.S. border. Dealers, usually Dominicans, package it and stamp it with brand names, such as Breaking Bad or Government Shutdown, then sell it to the street dealers. Confiscations at the border have increased from 556 kilograms in 2008 to 2,100 kilograms in 2012.

Staten Island, in particular, has a serious heroin and opioid problem. Pills are dispensed out of barbershops, ice cream trucks and drapery stores. In 2012, Staten Island witnessed what amounted to one overdose death every five days. In May 2014, a New York State Senate Joint Task Force Panel Discussion on Heroin and Opioid Addiction took place on Staten Island where parents of deceased children spoke out. One such mother, Candace Crupi, stated that “the pharmaceutical companies should help pay for drug treatment, because they’re reaping all the profits and suffering none of the sorrow.”

An effective rehabilitation center named Dynamic Youth Community, or Dynamite, was praised for its unique program that has witnessed an explosion of heroin addicts entering the program — 78 percent of the total population. The program lasts a full year, during which time the addicts have no access to their cell phone or the Internet. One young alumnus was quoted in The New Yorker saying that, while in the program, she “learned how to have sober fun again.”

On July 8, 2014, a pharmacist named Anthony D’Alessandro was arrested at his home for stealing about 200,000 oxycodone pills while he was head of the drug dispensary at Manhattan’s Beth Israel Medical Center (although he has pled not guilty).

In St. Clair, Illinois the community is taking a stand to help stop the trend in heroin and prescription drug dependence. Heroin claimed the lives of three of its residents in 2012, but killed 13 just a year later. The drugs task force seized only nine prescription pills in 2006, but seized 1,093 in 2011. There has been a 40 percent increase in prosecuted cases involving drugs from 2010 to 2013. Local residents are starting Blue Water Area Families Against Narcotics, a grassroots group that provides support, education and resources to addicts and their families.

In Boston, lawmakers are proposing new laws in response to a significant spike in heroin and opioid-related deaths in Massachusetts. Longer prison terms for traffickers, more funding for substance abuse treatment and increased police power are just a few of the dozens of suggestions. Dozens of bills around the U.S. have been filed with bipartisan agreement and participation.

In Southern California, activists in south Orange County are holding community forums and producing documentaries — such as Overtaken, Overtaken 2 and Behind the Orange Curtain, to create public awareness about the dangers of prescription drugs and heroin, among other dangerous drugs. Jodi Barber, a mother who lost her son to a prescription pill overdose, has widely distributed the Overtaken series that she helped produce with Christine Brant. The documentaries have been viewed in countless school settings nationwide, and they have been featured guests on the Katie Couric Show, ABC7, PBS and Cox3 news shows.

Other local efforts include a new coalition called Community Outreach Alliance, or COA, in San Clemente, California, a city where dozens of recent overdose deaths have occurred. This group incorporates local business donations and has teamed up with Pastor Pondo Vleisides of Talega Life Church to offer local youth informative clinics about the dangers of these drugs, as well as alternative entertainment options that provide a drug- and alcohol-free environment.

A common thread that runs throughout the nationwide efforts to battle the heroin and opioid epidemic is a call for the ready availability of naloxone (Narcan), a nasal-spray antagonist drug which can almost instantly reverse the effects of heroin or opioid overdose. Many lives have been saved by the first responders who were able to administer this antidote, yet only 22 states allow it at present. Many activists battling the epidemic are calling for a non-prescription naloxone to be made available at the local drugstore for family and friends to have at their disposal, should a loved one overdose.

Sovereign Health of California is an addiction, mental health and dual diagnosis treatment provider, offering several locations in California as well as centers in Utah, Arizona and Florida. For more information on treatment for drugs and alcohol please call (866) 819-0427.

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