CLEVELAND - As state officials in Ohio look to tackle the issue of prescription drug abuse, the number of opiate overdose deaths in Ohio's largest county sits at about 100 in one year, mirroring the total statewide a decade ago.
Most Cuyahoga County communities have been affected by deaths from prescription painkillers or the street drug heroin, The Plain Dealer in Cleveland reported Sunday.
Drug overdoses have topped car crashes as the leading cause of accidental death in Ohio for the past few years. State data shows heroin and addictive medications that are similar to it accounted for more than 750 of the nearly 1,400 drug deaths in 2009, according to the newspaper.
Prescription opiates are like pharmaceutical-grade heroin, and the prescription drug problem is driving a heroin problem, said Orman Hall, director of Ohio's Department of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services.
There's been an increase in demand for purer heroin as more potent painkillers have become more available. Some people begin using the pills that seem more acceptable but switch to heroin, which is often cheaper.
"We are seeing a trend toward younger and younger people experimenting with heroin," said Dr. Gregory Collins, director of the Cleveland Clinic Alcohol and Drug Recovery Center. "They are moving from alcohol to marijuana and then heroin. It's a quick progression. Sometimes there's a brief interlude with pain pills."
The demand for heroin has increased in northern Ohio, as has the number of busts for trafficking, said Steven Dettelbach, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Ohio.
Prescription drug abused is a factor in that, but so are purity, price and new Mexican suppliers, he told the newspaper.
He said among eight police chiefs from larger cities in the Northern Ohio Violent Crime Consortium, seven recently told him heroin trafficking tops their list of criminal problems.
"It was very sobering to hear," Dettelbach said. "It's a very socially destructive drug."
Hall, the addiction services director, said a critical step in battling the drug problems is changing the culture of how opiates are prescribed. He also said there need to be changes in how addicts are treated and how authorities deal with related crimes.