by DAVE O'BRIEN | RECORD-COURIER REPORTER
The Ohio attorney general's office is officially calling the state's heroin problem an "epidemic," responsible for nearly 1,300 fatal overdoses in the past three years.
Numbers provided by the office show that in 2012, 606 heroin users died of overdoses across the state, though the actual number of overdose deaths in Ohio could be higher because of unreported cases, according to the attorney general's office.
Portage County is feeling the effects of the highly-addictive drug, which is known to cause respiratory problems, serious infections or related diseases because of unhygienic practices and can be fatal or habit-forming after a single dose.
As of Nov. 1, there were 22 fatal drug overdoses in the county in 2013.
Aurora Police Chief Seth Riewaldt said he is seeing a larger number of overdoses and increased drug-related criminal activity in his community as a result of the ready availability of the drug.
"Every four to six months, someone ends up overdosing. We used to see it once a year or so, but in the last couple years it's picking up," Riewaldt said.
Aurora police saw one heroin overdose fatality each in January, April and September this year, Riewaldt said. Two non-fatal overdoses also were reported -- one each in September and November. In the November case, it was the female victim's second overdose, though her first took place in another jurisdiction, he said.
ONE PERSON died and two were hospitalized out of Streetsboro as a result of three heroin overdoses in the city in October and November, according to police Lt. Darin Powers.
He said the city has seen four total drug overdose deaths in 2013 -- one from heroin, one from the painkiller oxycodone and two from aerosol inhalation, or "huffing." Another Streetsboro resident overdosed on heroin and died in another city, he said.
Heroin use is "definitely much more prolific now than I've ever seen in my career as a police officer," Powers said. "Heroin has been on the rise for the last five years, and it's definitely a lot worse than we've ever seen it."
Patrol officers are seeing increased signs of the drug in the city, "whether it's people using or officers taking heroin off of people, or the paraphernalia to use heroin."
Users also are committing more property crimes, whether shoplifting from stores or burglarizing houses to feed their addiction, he said.
The money and stolen goods traded for heroin travels from Streetsboro and up Interstate 480 to Cleveland, where users purchase the drug and bring it back to Streetsboro, Powers said, adding that the Warren area is second to Cleveland as a source of heroin.
Law enforcement sources say Lake County and East Cleveland are two other locations in Northeast Ohio where heroin is easily obtainable, sometimes for as little as $10 or $20 a dose.
Many of the overdoses involve former prescription pill addicts who have been driven to heroin because of the high cost, visibility and law enforcement's fight against prescription painkiller addiction, Riewaldt said.
"THE STATE has done a pretty good job on working on prescription painkillers -- oxycodone, fentanyl," he noted. "While we're working on those, people move to heroin because it's cheaper."
Quality and quantity are other issues affecting the number of overdoses. The purity of heroin and how it affects each user differently can lead some addicts to take too much or cause those just out of drug rehab to take their usual dose and die, their tolerance having decreased during treatment, according to law enforcement sources.
"With a pharmaceutical, you can gauge its quantity in milligrams, but with heroin you don't know," Riewaldt said.
To combat the "epidemic," the Ohio attorney general's office recently announced the creation of a heroin unit to provide resources, including investigators, attorneys and drug awareness specialists, to local law enforcement.
Attorney General Mike DeWine said that in 2013, approximately 11 Ohioans are dying of heroin overdoses every week. The data also showed a 107 percent increased in heroin deaths in more than half of Ohio's 88 counties.
Communities in the mostly urban/suburban counties of Cuyahoga, Montgomery, Franklin and Hamilton accounted for 381 of the 606 heroin overdose deaths in 2012, according to DeWine's office. Montgomery County, where Dayton is located, had 92 overdose deaths as of Nov. 18, nearing 2012's total.
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