A State Of Crisis: Ohio’s Downward Spiral Into An Opiate Epidemic

Ohio is in the midst of one of the worse drug epidemics this country has ever seen and everyone is eerily quiet.

We’ve all seen the images. A 47-year-old man, slumped over in the driver’s seat of a car, his mouth tilted and gaping open. The woman to his left is leaned all the way over the center console. Her mouth, too, is left open wide, her eyes plastered closed. The thin spaghetti strap to her faded brown top droops down the taut sunburned skin of her exposed shoulder. Both of these people are seated in the front seat. Both are unconscious. Both are overdosing on heroin.

That image in and of itself is enough to wretch anyone’s heart from their chest. But the terrifying thing, the part that makes you gasp and snatches your breath away, is that seated in the back in a bright green and blue dinosaur tee-shirt, is the slight figure of a four-year-old boy. His face is obscured by pixelation but it’s easy to imagine the terror and confusion there as the burly arms of policemen reach in to check the vitals of his mom and dad, rummaging through the car for drug paraphernalia.

That image has been doing laps on the internet since they were taken in early March. It instantly drew national news attention, breaking the hearts of millions, their hands held over their mouths in shock as they stared down at tablets and smartphones. But this story, those images, they weren’t from Seattle or L.A. or West Virginia or Detroit. They were from our state. East Liverpool, Ohio, near the Pennsylvanian border.

For the past decade, Ohio has been blitzkrieged and ravaged by opiates.

Not just heroin, but medications like Vicodin and Fentanyl have laid waste to entire towns and crippled counties. Entire chunks of families have been ripped away. Parents are losing their children in record numbers, hundreds of kids have been tossed into the system, orphaned by opiates. In 2016 alone the drugs took the lives of over 3,000 people, compare that to the number of opiate overdoses in 2003 totaling less than 400.

(Warning, this video may be hard for some to watch)


So how did we get here? How did we go from the state that’s produced seven different United States presidents to the state with one of the highest rate of drug overdoses in the country?

A lot of it seems to extend all the way back to 2004 when the state medical board pushed to make undertreating pain a punishable offense. Medical professionals felt forced, they began handing out prescription medication in volumes they simply hadn’t before.

“Opiates have a legitimate place in pain management,” says Summer Gemmell, a graduate finishing her residency at East Liverpool City Hospital, “Unfortunately, most opiate addicts start out with a legitimate injury or trauma and end up addicted.” She works in the very same town that garnered national attention with those images of the overdosed parents in a Ford Explorer.

The images may have shocked some but not her. She’s become used to the sight of overdoses in East Liverpool. “I typically see three to six opiate withdrawal patients a day, plus four-plus overdoses a day in the ER. Our hospital sits right on the river within less than five minutes to West Virginia and less than 30 minutes to Pennsylvania. As a result, we are a high traffic area for opiates and heroin.”

In 2007 Perdue Pharma, the company that produces OxyContin pled guilty in criminal court to purposefully misleading medical regulators to the drug’s ability to be addictive. The company paid out $600 million in fines but no one saw any jail time, despite the many deaths laid at the feet of prescription medication, before then and since.

Mark Frazier, a Republican Newark City Councilman, sees the threat in his town every day. “What we’re seeing in Newark is a prescription drug crisis throughout the state, we’re seeing heroin use on the rise. We’re seeing that nationwide but we’re really seeing that in Ohio.”

Councilman Frazier just finished a presentation, looking into alternative medicines and the possible use of medical marijuana in lieu of certain medications. “Do I think there’s opportunity for alternative medicines and medicinal marijuana to help? Yes, but it’s also on the prescribers to recommend [those] alternatives.”

“The crisis is multi-fold,” he says, admitting that the epidemic was no simple a matter. “How do we prevent people using, how do we get people that are using off, and how do we get people that are off using to continue to abstain from using.”

“It’s something that can be defeated by education, awareness, and also doing some regulatory changes. I think that Ohio is trying to make those regulatory changes but we’re also the number one state for prescriptions of opiates.”

And Ohio is trying to crack down on that. After the Perdue Pharma crisis and the huge spike in prescription drug abuse, regulation was passed to limit the number of opiates being handed out by doctors. But with people already addicted, fighting back symptoms of withdrawal, something had to fill that void. Something cheaper and with a much stronger high. Enter heroin.

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The state was no stranger to the drug before, but with the uptick in opiate users, the ground was finally fertile enough for the drug to spread and flourish. And flourish it did, with the sale and use of the narcotic practically booming overnight. It didn’t matter that your doctor had cut your prescription, your neighbor Jimmy three doors down had plenty of black tar, and you didn’t have to lie about body pains to get it.

Now, instead of the quaint heroin of old, people are lacing it with a combination of prescription opiates. Called “Grey Concrete” the heroin is often combined with Fentanyl, and even Carfentanil— an elephant tranquilizer 10,000 times stronger than morphine.

The substance practically ensures overdose of even the most experienced opiate user.

So here we are. The Buckeye State. Ranked in the top five states with the most overdoses per year. Placing us fourth as of 2015, tying Kentucky with 29.9 per 100,000. Practically everyone I know has a horror story, a loved one they’ve lost to addiction or one currently in the thrall of it.

I never thought I would know anyone with an opiate problem. Never thought that I would console friends who, with quivering fingers and cracked voices, would confide in me their heroin use. A dim cry for help but a brave shout into that darkness none the less.

When did Ohio become this cold? We’ve made a name for ourselves by sending men into space and we still do. Injected into the blackness, stuck hovering in the void. And we leave them out there. Alone with their addiction and desperation. Sure, there are a few speaking up about it now, creating a dialogue, but for the most part everyone has been eerily quiet. We ignore it. Shoving it to the side, hoping it’ll just go away with time. We’ve become callused, Ohio, callused and frigid and cold. And I am shivering. I am shivering all the goddamn time…

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