The number of heroin overdoses reported during the first three months of this year has put Bartholomew County on pace to more than double the number experienced in 2015.

“This is obviously bad news for our community,” said Dr. Kevin Terrell, medical director of the emergency department at Columbus Regional Hospital.

Ten individuals were booked into the Bartholomew County Jail on heroin-related arrests — seven for possession and three for dealing — during the first three months of the year.

That’s almost half of the 21 heroin-related bookings for all of 2015 and slightly more than the total methamphetamine-related arrests for the first quarter of this year, records show.

Story continues below gallery

A growing problem

Local police authorities said heroin was suspected in 19 drug overdoses reported during the first three months of this year. During a late-March speaking appearance with local Kiwanis Club members, Columbus Police Department spokesman Lt. Matt Harris said 14 of the suspected heroin overdoses had taken place in Columbus. Through the same period, sheriff’s department records indicate five such incidents occurred in Bartholomew County outside the Columbus city limits.

Six people — about one in every three victims who overdosed in Bartholomew County — died as a result of their drug use, coroner Larry Fisher said.

There’s no sign of a slowdown.

In a matter of days after Harris spoke to Kiwanis Club members:

A 45-year-old female was found suffering from an overdose in a west side motel.

A male overdose victim was discovered at a residence off Gladstone Ave.

A different male overdose victim was dropped off at a fire station for emergency treatment.

“To date in 2016, we’ve seen more patients for heroin overdoses than we did in all of 2011, 2012 and 2013 combined,” Terrell said.

The hospital has recorded 119 heroin overdoses since 2011.

By far the biggest share of heroin overdose victims — about 60 percent — have been in their 20s, Terrell said.

Another telling demographic is that nearly two-thirds of all local heroin overdose victims have been male, he said.

The Columbus Police Department began to see a significant increases in heroin overdoses in 2013, responded to eight of them, three of which resulted in death.

Heroin overdoses took off the following year when city officers responded to 40 heroin overdoses that resulted in five deaths.

Due to the widespread availability of an opioid-antidote Narcan, just one heroin-related death occurred in 2015, local police agencies reported.

Meth comparison

Before this year, methamphetamine was by far the most popular illegal narcotic in the Columbus area. There were almost five times more investigations into methamphetamine dealing in 2015 than in similar crimes involving heroin, according to the Columbus Police Department annual report.

Methamphetamine arrests showed a similar trend.

But with heroin overdoses and deaths up significantly, “heroin gets all the headlines,” the police spokesman said.

There have been fewer meth-related fires and injuries, as well as thefts of anhydrous ammonia — a fertilizer used in manufacturing the drug — so it’s easy to perceive the meth problem has diminished locally, Harris said.

“For a while, our SWAT team was raiding houses monthly and finding remnants of meth labs,” Harris said. “We’re not seeing that at the frequency we did years ago.”

While it’s true that substantially less powder meth is being manufactured locally, that’s because the imported and more pure crystalline version is currently dominating the market, Harris said.

In fact, those who illegally smuggle heroin into the United States from Mexico — and those who manufacture crystal meth — are frequently the same people, Harris said.

“Meth users tend to use meth only, but often heroin users will use other drugs,” Harris said.

In fact, it’s often when heroin is mixed with other narcotics or alcohol that users suffer an overdose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“One drug isn’t a bigger problem than the other,” Harris said. “For law enforcement, it’s all a priority.”

The fact that people are dying suddenly from heroin overdoses demands immediate attention, however, Sheriff Matt Meyers said.

Meth users can also experience serious, life-threatening, long-term consequences, however, Terrell said.

“But heroin abusers are at incredibly high risk of dying with each use of the drug,” Terrell said. “Using just a little too much heroin can cause the person to stop breathing and die.”

Timing of trend

Reports of increasing use of heroin began after state and federal governments began more closely monitoring physicians and pharmacies that provide painkiller drugs, Terrell said.“Since the addiction didn’t go away, they resorted to the closest thing, which is heroin,” Harris said.

Some heroin users are simply trying to cope with excruciating pain following an accident or surgery, while others were looking for nothing more than a “weekend stress reliever,” the police spokesman said.

In addressing the same question from a medical perspective, Terrell said the heroin user feels an immediate high sensation and extreme relaxation.

But since the user has no idea of the purity of the narcotic, that’s where the danger lies, Terrell said.

“When too much drug is taken, it leads to the person relaxing so deeply that they stop breathing,” the physician said. “If the person isn’t given the antidote (Narcan) quickly enough, he or she will die fairly quickly.”

SHARE
Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.