For police, treating heroin overdoses is the new normal.
A big battleground is suburban Amherst. It is located on the Ohio Turnpike, which officers say is a major drug route between Detroit and New York. It’s also on the edge of the county’s largest and poorest city, Lorain, while bordering rural areas, and has a representative cross-section of rich and poor, young and old, and white collar and blue collar workers.
Sgt. Jacob Perez is an 18-year veteran of the department. In the past two years, he’s personally given naloxone 10 times during suspected overdoses.
“We know that time is not on our side,” he said, describing quickly ripping open the nasal spray packs. “Most of the time, we have no idea how long they’ve been under. Administering it quickly is the key.”
Police now hold life-giving power in their hands. They carry Naloxone, sold under the brand name Narcan, which can revive an overdose victim and has no negative side-effects, so it’s a go-to tool.
Pushing the plunger and hoping it works is an awesome responsibility.
“All the guys’ hearts race a little bit. It’s an adrenaline issue. It’s a hot call and something that will get your heart rate up no matter what,” Perez said. “You know you’re going there to encounter someone who’s dying or maybe already dead. You’re going there to give them something that’s most likely going to bring them back to life.”
It’s becoming second nature for officers. Perez said almost everyone on the Amherst roster has used Narcan on someone — he’s even used it twice on the same person in different incidents.
The battle against heroin is horrific. The upside, said Perez, is that “the guys are knowing more and more what to expect. It’s not uncommon anymore like when we first started carrying it.”
Enforcing drug laws has long been part of the job description for police. But there was never an “aha” moment when officers saw heroin burst onto the scene and become a major problem.
It crept up slowly and steadily, he said: “It’s gotten much, much worse in the past couple of years. I don’t know if there was really a moment. Going back several years ago, it all started with the pills, and just took off. I can’t say exactly when. It just took off everywhere in every community.”
Patrolman Jake Podrosky said he has used Narcan on the job 15 to 20 times over the past two years.
“Right when you put your first vial in through the nose they’ll start to wake up or start to come around and breathe a bit better,” he said, later adding, “You have to be careful because when they come to, sometimes they want to fight because they don’t know where they are or what’s going on. You have to be ready to restrain them.”
He said the decision to start carrying the life-saving drug all the time was the “collective moment where we all thought, “We have a big problem here.’”
Each officer carries two vials, and each vial has two doses. Podrosky remembers one scary moment with an overdose victim when those doses weren’t enough: “I had to go through mine, my backup went through theirs, then LifeCare (Ambulance) showed up and put two vials into the guy. That added up to about 10 doses on one person. It’s getting stronger and stronger.”
Sgt. Mike Murphy said heroin laced with fentanyl, carfentanil, and other synthetic opioids like U-47700 are making it far harder to revive OD victims. It’s taking three, four, and five vials, which is six to 10 doses, to bring them back.
The trouble is that fentanyl is more potent.
“We’re getting word on the street that addicts are requesting the fake stuff. Fentanyl is made in factories over in China and it’s pretty cheap for them to make it. It’s actually pretty cheap to get it here,” Murphy said. “It’s so potent that once you cut it and spread it so far, they’re just making a killing on it. Cost-wise, it’s something around $4,000 or less for a kilo of the stuff. You cut that with some heroin and it comes out around 10,000 doses in a kilo. You sell each of those doses for $10 and you’re up to $100,000 on this $4,000 kilo. The profit margin that these dealers are making is just insane.”
There is a perception that heroin is abused by minorities and the poor, that it’s an inner-city problem. Those who deal with overdose victims on a regular basis have debunked that idea.
Podrosky said there are the “everyday people” who steal to support their drug addiction. “Then you have people you’d never know were using heroin. The one I just responded to last week had a bachelor’s degree from Ohio State. He said he hasn’t been able to find a job and had become very depressed and that led him to use.”
There is no “arresting the problem away,” said Murphy. It doesn’t work, no matter how many people are placed behind bars.
So what can be done?
For one, he said, doctors need to stop over-prescribing pain-killers: “These doctors need education. A lot of what we see is young people being led to addiction through a sports injury. The medication needs to be better regulated. We need better education on the matter going toward their parents on how to avoid addiction.”
Podrosky agreed. “There’s other ways to deal with pain. You don’t need to prescribe opiates. That’s what’s causing a lot of this. Someone gets hurt. It won’t be that big of an injury. They run out of opiates. Then they start using heroin. I see that way too much,” he said. “Parents need to pay attention to their medicine cabinets. If drugs are coming up missing, they have to question and their kids and can’t turn a blind eye.”
Treatment options also need to be elevated above punishment, the officers said.
Amherst is among the local cities now offering safe harbor to addicts who come forward asking for help. Police put them in touch with Let’s Get Real Inc., based in Vermilion.
The company reached out to Amherst police by way of the Lorain County Chiefs Law Enforcement Association and county prosecutor Dennis Will’s office.
If you’re an addict, you can take your drugs, needles, and other paraphernalia and surrender it all to the cops at 911 North Lake St. They’ve been trained to handle and dispose of the contraband, and within 24 hours can get placement for the victim at Let’s Get Real — without legal ramifications.
Jonathan Delozier can be reached at 440-647-3171 or @DelozierNews on Twitter.
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