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The number of unintentional drug overdoses continued to rise in the state in 2015, according to new statistics released by the Ohio
Department of Health.
A record 3,050 Ohio residents died as a result of overdoses last year, up from 2,531 in 2014 and 2,110 in 2013.
The number has risen every year since 2009; since 2010, nearly 13,000 Ohioans have died from unintentional drug overdoses.
Fentanyl, a powerful synthetic narcotic that users are mixing with heroin, was a big driver of the increase, accounting for 1,155 unintentional overdose deaths last year, up from 503 in 2014 and 84 in ’13. Fentanyl-related deaths were mostly in the single digits during the previous half a dozen years.
“Ohio was one of the first states to see the rise of fentanyl over the past couple of years, as the opiate epidemic continues to evolve to more powerful drugs,” said Mark Hurst, medical director of the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.
Heroin was the second-biggest driver of Ohio’s results, accounting for 1,424 unintentional overdose deaths in 2015, up from 1,196 in 2014 and 983 in ’13.
Youngstown Police Chief Robin Lees, who has spent a majority of his 30-year-plus career in law enforcement dealing with narcotics investigations, said he is surprised at how popular opiates have become. He said it reminds him of the rise in crack-cocaine use in the early 1990s.
Lees said doctors prescribing opiate-based painkillers to patients who later become hooked may account for some of the surge, but he also said that heroin use now does not seem as taboo as it did when he first became a police officer. Lees said before, heroin users were a small percentage of drug users known to police.
“We knew our heroin users and who was selling it back in the day,” Lees said.
Lees said heroin use is more accepted now, and he thinks that is one of the reasons why use of the drug is rising.
Lees said he is surprised because heroin has been around for a long time, yet has never been this popular. He said in the 1980s there were pill mills for opiate-based painkillers, but never to the extent that they are today.
Lees was speaking as he was on his way back from Columbus on Thursday from a conference on fentanyl and carfentanil, an animal tranquilizer that is being used more and more frequently by drug addicts. Lees said the growing use of both drugs statewide is alarming.
Fentanyl is used in anesthesia to treat patients in extreme pain or to manage pain after surgeries. Health officials estimate that it is 30-50 times more potent than heroin.
Mahoning County forensic pathologist Dr. Joseph Ohr said the number of overdose deaths where fetanyl was a factor has increased from four in 2013 to 19 so far in 2016. So far in 2016, there are 22 deaths that have been linked to heroin, which is about average for the county this time of year, Dr. Ohr said.
State lawmakers have proposed law changes to address the fentanyl issue. Senate Bill 237, for example, would increase criminal penalties for the possession or sale of the drug.
On the positive side, state efforts have reduced the number of prescription painkillers distributed to residents, and the number of related overdose deaths has remained relatively level – 667 unintentional deaths were linked to prescription opioids last year, down from 672 in 2014.
“There were 81 million fewer opioid doses dispensed to Ohio patients since the state took initiatives to curb opiates, and the number of people who try to get controlled substances from multiple doctors has dramatically decreased,” state Medical Director Mary DiOrio said. “Also, the percentage of prescription opioid-related deaths compared to all unintentional overdose deaths declined in Ohio for the fourth-straight year.”
Dr. Ohr lauded those efforts and said they appear to be working in Mahoning County. Thus far in 2016, the county has five overdoses from pills, down from an average of 13 to 15 at this time of year. But he said the increase in fetanyl deaths and the stabilization of heroin overdose deaths make up for that.
Additionally, emergency responders and law enforcement also have increased their use of naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of opioid overdoses, saving Ohioans’ lives in the process.
According to health officials, emergency personnel administered 19,782 doses of the drug last year, 7,207 more than were administered two years prior.
From a law-enforcement standpoint, Lees said there is not much that can be done to combat the rising abuse of heroin because of the strong demand. He said more education is needed to inform people of the dangers of heroin and more treatment programs to help recovering people stay off the drug.