Leaders, community members gather to plan attack on growing heroin epidemic in NE Ohio

CLEVELAND - A joint summit sponsored by the U.S. Attorney and the Cleveland Clinic was conducted in front of a capacity crowd of 650 on Thursday on the campus of the Cleveland Clinic.

The goal of the summit was to produce a community action plan that will encompass law enforcement, the medical community and families and communities alike.

"This is a health care problem, not just a law enforcement problem," said U.S. Attorney Steve Dettelbach. "We're not just going to arrest our way out of heroin problems."

The summit's audience was made up of law enforcement, medical personnel and social workers, but also parents who have children who are struggling with addiction and some who have even lost children to heroin overdose.

Cleveland Clinic CEO Toby Cosgrove spoke of the increase in volume the Cleveland Clinic has seen over the course of several years. Cosgrove said that on average, the clinic takes 25 calls per day for opiate addiction and four to five new patients are seen each day for opiate or heroin related addiction issues.

Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald spoke about how the problem in Cuyahoga County has ballooned to more than 400 percent in recent years.

"It's not the same problem it was 20 years ago," he said. "There is no drug out there on the streets that is more deadly than heroin. There is no such thing as experimental use or casual use and there is no such thing as a safe dose."

While medical, law enforcement, and government officials all agree that education is the key to combating the problem and stopping it from spreading, they also acknowledged the problems that contributed to the heroin epidemic in the first place.

According to clinic addiction specialists, most of the problems they are seeing are a result of addiction to prescription pain killers that are often times over-prescribed for a variety of injury related issues.

Another challenge that exits is cracking down on doctors who over-prescribe — an issue that Cosgrove said the clinic is taking very seriously and has already led to the firing of a few physicians.

According to FitzGerald, some steps that have already been taken by the county include an increase in the amount of prescription drop off boxes (for people to dispose of their unused prescription pills), an increase in naloxone administration (a chemical nasal spray that first responders use to revive those experiencing overdose-a process advocated by Project DAWN) and a new heroin death review process, which includes automatically sending additional police to the scene of a suspected heroin overdose to collect evidence.

While the addiction cycle of a typical heroin user is difficult to overcome, Cleveland Clinic addiction specialist Dr. Jason Jerry wants to stress that there is hope for those struggling with addiction, but that sometimes standard detox rehab is not enough.

Jerry said there is evidence behind some of the most successful treatments showing a combination of medication with detox has been the way to go for many patients to achieve full remission.

Jerry also said that treatment will begin to become more effective when doctors and families can recognize heroin addiction as a chronic illness and treat it as such.

According to Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas Gilson, the key to future success is education, but warns that it can't happen overnight:

"It's a marathon, not a sprint. Education is what is going to stop this epidemic."

For information on heroin addiction resources, visit adamhscc.org.

For information on project DAWN, visit healthy.ohio.gov/vipp/drug/ProjectDAWN.aspx .

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