A plentiful and easy-to-get supply of heroin is creating a growing addiction problem in Columbus that law enforcement and lawmakers agree will take years to get under control.
Columbus Regional Hospital officials have noticed a significant jump in heroin abuse among patients over the past year, said Dr. Kevin Terrell, the emergency room medical director.
“We’ve gone from seeing 111 patients for heroin and pain pill abuse in 2009 to 169 patients in 2013,” Terrell said. “With 118 patients seen for heroin and other narcotics in just the first half of 2014, we’re on pace to see a large jump in drug abuse compared to last year.”
This summer, the Columbus Police Department has been called to an average four to five heroin-related incidents a week, Police Chief Jon Rohde said.
The increasing numbers aren’t a surprise to police.
In late 2012, local officers began recognizing they were witnessing the “calm before the storm,” Columbus Police Department Lt. Matt Myers said.
That was the year prescription drug manufacturers changed the formulations of pills, making them more difficult to crush and then inhale or inject, according to a recent study by the New England Journal of Medicine.
An estimated two-thirds of more than 2,500 people addicted to the painkiller Oxycontin switched to another opioid, usually heroin, after Oxycontin changed its formula, the study stated.
Cheap and appealing
Other factors also increased the supply and demand for heroin.
For example, demand went up after the federal government began closely monitoring physicians and pharmacies who provide painkiller drugs, Terrell said.
At the same time, the state of Indiana increased oversight of pain-management clinics, the Columbus physician said.
Together, state and federal interventions have reduced the availability of often-abused painkiller drugs, Terrell said.
“But at the same time, the price of heroin has gone down, and purity levels of heroin have been on the rise,” he said. “These circumstances all make heroin more appealing to people who abuse pain pills.”
Myers, who will succeed Mark Gorbett as Bartholomew County sheriff Jan. 1, said heroin is cheaper and more readily available than pharmaceutical drugs.
While an 80-milligram dose of Oxycontin can cost up to $80 on the street, a bag of heroin can cost as little as $3 to $10, according to recently released statistics from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Heroin induces a sense of euphoria that is far more intense than other opiates such as morphine, oxycodone and hydrocodone, Terrell said.
“This creates a powerful desire for more heroin once its effects have worn off, which leads to abuse of the drug even after just one exposure to it,” the physician said.
Age isn’t a factor in determining who uses the drug, according to Columbus Regional Hospital data. Statistics that have been tabulated since 2009 show
40.5 percent of the addicts are in their 30s and 40s, while 30.8 percent were in their 20s. Those 50 and older represented 24 percent of patients treated for opioid use. Only about 3 percent of those treated were in their teens.
A slight majority of patients treated for opioid addition were female, at 58.3 percent.
Not every victim of heroin use survives.
Three Columbus area residents, all in their 20s, died within a month last summer from heroin overdoses. Since then, another nine deaths have been attributed to the drug, Bartholomew County Coroner Larry Fisher said.
The lives of several overdose victims have been saved by the use of Naloxone, a medication that can reverse heroin overdoses and save lives if it is administered in time, Terrell said.
The drug, best known by the brand name Narcan and carried on all ambulance runs, was administered to three patients during the weekend of Aug. 23, Fisher said.
“Narcan is extremely effective, and we’re saving more lives,” Fisher said. “But that doesn’t mean the overdose victim won’t make the same mistake again.”
“Whether intentional or unintentional, overdose can be a deadly consequence of heroin use,” Terrell said. “A large dose of heroin reduces breathing to such an extent that the user may completely stop breathing and die.”
Arrests on rise
The number of heroin buys made by Columbus Police undercover narcotics officers skyrocketed during the first eight months of 2013. While exact figures for the number of buys are being withheld, the total was about three times greater than the number made during the previous three years, Myers said.
Yet, there were only three heroin-related arrests in Columbus during the first half of 2014, the total amount for all of last year, police department spokesman Sgt. Matt Harris said.
“More often than not, the product has already been used by the time we get to the scene, and there’s no evidence left that they can be arrested for,” Harris said. “Besides, our priority is getting medical help for addicts. Their health is of paramount importance.”
Narcotics officers also are hesitant to make immediate arrests in hopes of gaining more information for their ongoing, multilevel investigations, Myers said.
Some of those investigations show signs of paying off.
After arrest warrants for dealing in heroin were issued, two Columbus men were taken into custody last week. Investigators believe the two were bringing in heroin from Indianapolis to sell in Bartholomew County.
Kyle Alexander Hunter, 31, of 3851 Misty Drive, was arrested Aug. 21. Besides dealing in heroin, he also is charged with possession of a controlled substance, driving while suspended and dealing in cocaine.
As of Thursday, he was being held in the Bartholomew County Jail in lieu of $50,000 surety or $5,000 cash bond, according to jail officials.
Sean Eric Hunter, 36, of 206 Stonegate Drive, was arrested Saturday on a warrant charging him with three counts of dealing in heroin. He’s being held in lieu of a $300,000 surety or $30,000 cash bond.
“Getting these two guys will hopefully help the heroin problem,” Harris said. “It will at least get out the message that we aren’t going to tolerate this type of drug activity in our community.”
Since July 1, five people have been arrested for possession of heroin in Bartholomew County, with an identical number of arrests over the same period of time in neighboring Brown County.
‘Not going away’
But the increased arrests over the past few months may only indicate the tip of the iceberg.
“It’s a lot worse than what most people say it is,” Myers said. “Heroin is not going away and continues to be a big problem in Columbus.”
“This is a statewide problem; and when you consider the cost and prohibitions now imposed on prescription drugs, as well as a lack of resources for treatment, we don’t see anything right now that could turn things around,” Harris said.
One problem in going after the source of heroin is that most of the drug’s distributors don’t live here, Rohde said.
Most local heroin users travel to large Midwestern cities, especially Cincinnati, to get the drug and either keep all the heroin for themselves or share it only with a close circle of friends, the police chief said.
Before 2012, the vast majority of Hoosier drug users didn’t consider using heroin because they thought they would have to inject it with a syringe. But that perception changed as word spread that highly pure heroin can be snorted or smoked, Terrell said.
“This may make it more appealing to users who are reluctant to inject the drug,” Terrell said.
More than 80 percent of heroin users in the Columbus area snort the drug, Rohde estimated.
While he said his department has its eyes on some heroin dealers, Rohde said his narcotics officers could spend the rest of their lives trying to work their way up the supply chain.
“Combating this drug problem is like emptying the ocean with a teaspoon,” Rohde said. “It keeps coming in. And as long as there’s demand, someone is always going to step up to supply it.”