Opening the dialogue about opioid addiction

Human trafficking, car break-ins, petty theft, and overcrowded correctional institutions. These are just a handful of the crimes and societal issues making news headlines each night.

However, it's becoming increasingly clear that these problems, in many cases, are all symptoms of the deadly epidemic of heroin and prescription drug addiction.

For years, law enforcement has been attacking this issue head on. But now authorities admit this is a problem they can't arrest their way out of. This is why they're now working with Health experts to try new strategies.

And the family members of those who became addicted to heroin are speaking out for the first time with 47 ABC News, in the hopes that sharing their painful stories of loss, heartache, and recovery will break the stigma over addiction and get more people talking about finding a cure to this epidemic.

Renee Jones, from Delmar, admits it's not easy to talk about the loss of her son, Nathan, who died using heroin. "I lost my son, who was 27 years old, on January 24th, 2013. It never crossed my mind, that he would do heroin, at all. because he was one of the most smartest people I know. And truly, in many ways I looked up to him in so many things, because I trusted him, trusted him to be okay."

And like many parents of kids who struggle with addiction, Renee still looks back, trying to figure out what she could have done differently, "I've beat myself up, and I've tortured myself, but there comes a time when that has to stop."

Renee is part of a support group called "Shoulder to Shoulder."

Their stories are so different. But the one constant, aside from the heroin abuse, is how the addictions first started with prescription pain-killers.

"My journey began with getting medication from a car accident, and running out." explains recovering heroin addict, Sarah McCoy, "and insurance running out…and I turned to heroin."

Renee explains how she believes her son's journey with addiction started when he was just 12 years-old, "I believe it began with an injury when he broke an ankle. Snd he was given pain medication. And he begged me for that medication. He did tell me at one point that that's the place that he remembers earliest of wanting to be high."

Jeff Sarres, who says he's been heroin free for 4 years and 3 months, is a mentor with the group, "I had two vertebrae out in my back, and that's what they started prescribing to me is pain medicine. And it just masked the pain. I still had it. It was just covering it up. It took quite a while, but I did get a craving for it. And I never did really think of it as an addictive thing. I thought it was medicine."

Many of the pain pills prescribed by doctors are opiates, like morphine, and synthetic or semi-synthetic opioids, such as oxycontin, Percocet, or Vicodin which are molecularly similar to heroin.

Health experts point to the late 1990's, and the boom of the *pain management* era, as the point when the use of prescription pain-killers took off.

Dr. Karyl Rattay, Director of Delaware's Division of Public Health tells 47 ABC 80 percent of all the opiates in the world are prescribed in the US. And according to 2012 numbers provided by the Delaware Department of Health and Human Services, the first state ranked first in the nation for the number of high dose opiates prescribed by doctors.

"I feel we have a long way to go," admits Dr. Rattay. "In just looking at our latest mortality data and seeing it's still the leading cause of overdose deaths. So yes, we're worried about the increases in heroin, but we also know that from a number of data sources, (prescription drug abuse) is the major gateway for opiate addiction, for heroin addiction."

The health department in Wicomico County, Maryland also points to high dose pain killer prescriptions as the major issue contributing to the local epidemic. Cindy Shifler, the Alcohol, Tobacco, and other drug Prevention Coordinator with the Wicomico County Health Department explains, "A number of doctors who were over prescribing and they lost their license for a period of time and they closed down their shop."

One of the worst cases of over prescribing reportedly happened in 2011, in the Salisbury, MD pain management office of Dr. Brent Fox, "He had like 2,200 patients. So those people had no access to prescription drugs, but they also had no access to any kind of medical treatment, for that reason. A lot of people didn't want to take them on, because they were afraid they were addicted. So a lot of these people ended up being pushed right into heroin."

In Delaware, there were 185 prescription drug and heroin overdose deaths in 2014. Dr. Rattay says that's equivalent to 1 person every two days.

Over the last year, 20 people died from overdose in Wicomico County alone. But Shifler says that number does not take into account the actual number of people who overdosed in the past year but survived.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, commonly known as HIPAA, apparently makes it extremely difficult to determine the full scope of the problem, because it prevents healthcare providers and hospitals from reporting overdoses to the health department.

But this is just one of the obstacles law enforcement and health experts are finding when trying to address the problem of these deadly drugs on Delmarva. See Part 2 of this series, for more.

Categories: Crime, Heroin Awareness, Opioid Crisis