Ohio attorney general: Heroin a statewide epidemic

CINCINNATI — Just as Ohio is making progress in the battle against prescription drug abuse, it’s getting overrun by heroin, the attorney general said Monday.

Mike DeWine said statistics compiled by his office show at least 11 Ohioans die each week from heroin overdoses, with the real total of heroin-related deaths likely to be even higher.

“We have a heroin epidemic,” DeWine said in a news conference announcing formation of a Heroin Unit in his office. “There is a heroin problem in every single part of the state. If you don’t think you have a problem with heroin in your community, you’re probably wrong.”

Ohio is experiencing a situation similar to what happened in neighboring Kentucky. Facing a pain pill abuse epidemic over the past decades, both states launched efforts to choke off supply and cut abuse. But the quick spread in the last years in the United States of cheap, potent heroin from Mexico and other countries has sent drug abuse and overdoses skyrocketing in the region.

DeWine said seizures of heroin by the Ohio State Highway Patrol are jumping, as are state crime lab cases involving heroin. He said there were than 600 heroin overdose deaths in the state in 2012, a figure that more than doubled since 2010. Comprehensive numbers are uncertain because of variations in responses from county coroners and in how they investigate and record heroin deaths, he added. He also said the number would be much higher if it included heroin-related deaths, such as those from crimes involving the drug.

David Pepper, a Cincinnati attorney and Democrat who is running for attorney general in 2014, said the Republican incumbent reacted slowly to a problem that’s been spreading for years.

“I certainly applaud the focus now on what has clearly been an epidemic around the state,” Pepper said, saying he would press for getting “at the heart of the problem” with evidence-based solutions for substance abuse and addiction services needs.

Of counties reporting heroin overdoses for 2012, Cuyahoga County had the most with 161, followed by Montgomery County with 93, Franklin County with 73 and Hamilton County with 54, the attorney general’s office said.

Montgomery County Coroner Kent Harshbarger, who said overdose deaths have nearly doubled this year in the Dayton area, joined DeWine for the news conference, as did the parents of a young overdose victim who warned how easily and cheaply young people can obtain heroin.

“We have to fight this spread at the grassroots level,” DeWine said. “Community by community.”

The heroin unit will include lawyers, investigators and awareness specialists to help fight heroin crimes and addiction.

Underscoring the worsening problem, the Cuyahoga County medical examiner said in a statement Monday that there were as many as six overdose deaths over the weekend in Cleveland and its suburbs. Expedited tests will try to determine for sure, but the examiner’s office urged people to be aware of rising number of fatalities and said there is no “safe” dose of heroin.

– Dan Sewell, Associated Press