December 21, 2014

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Summit: ‘Not going to arrest our way out of the heroin problem’

The crowd at the 2013 Heroin Summit, hosted by the Cleveland Clinic, reacts to an emotional story from a man about his son's struggle with the drug. (GAZETTE PHOTO BY KRISTIN BAUER)

More than 600 people from throughout Northeast Ohio gathered Thursday in Cleveland to confront the heroin problem that has swept through the region — claiming lives, destroying families and devastating communities along the way.

The summit, staged by the Cleveland Clinic and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, featured law enforcement, judges, social workers, medical personnel and those whose families have dealt with a loved one’s addiction.

Robert Brandt told the story about his son’s battle with heroin that eventually led to his death during a summit hosted by the Cleveland Clinic on Thursday. In an emotional presentation, he recounted the struggle of his son, Robby, and the day he found out his son had passed away after overdosing. (GAZETTE PHOTO BY KRISTIN BAUER)

Together, they discussed the impact of the drug on the area’s communities and possible ways of eradicating it.

Dr. Delos Cosgrove, president and CEO of the Cleveland Clinic, said the hospital gets about 25 calls each day for help with opiate addiction. The hospital system admits four to five new patients each day asking for treatment for opiate addiction.

Patients come from all walks of life and every community, and that’s one of the reasons Cosgrove said the Clinic wanted to host a summit on the topic.

“Age is not a determinate, social status is not a determinate and race is not a determinate. Frankly, it is everywhere across our community,” he said.

The daylong summit included speakers on a number of topics, but the conversation centered on why the drug is so addictive and how local communities are working to prevent addictions, decrease overdose deaths and improve treatment options.

“The solution cannot just be arrests,” said U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach, whose office prosecutes federal drug offenses and other crimes in northern Ohio. “We are not going to arrest our way out of the heroin problem alone.”

Nearly all agreed that education is a key component.

Seventy percent of addicts start their addiction with a prescription narcotic like oxycodone.

“Nobody starts on prescription opiates with the hope they’re going to become a heroin addict,” said Orman Hall, a member of Gov. John Kasich’s Opiate Cabinet.

But heroin can cost as little as 5 cents per milligram compared with $1 per milligram for a prescription pill.

After users make the switch to heroin, they typically begin using more often, and increasing their tolerance to the drug.

And while heroin is cheaper, users sometimes have no idea how strong a dose they are taking, Hall said.

“In some cases, heroin is cut with materials that make it less potent and in some cases it’s more potent,” he said.

Nowhere was that more evident than the string of overdoses first responders encountered in Lorain County earlier this month.

Between Nov. 8 and 11, officials in Lorain County handled 21 overdoses, two of which resulted in a death, Lorain County Coroner Stephen Evans said. Law enforcement officers have arrested the supplier of the heroin, which was found to be laced with fentanyl, a powerful painkiller.

But Evans said the real success in Lorain County has been the implementation of a pilot program that allows police officers to carry and dispense Narcan, which helps reverse overdose effects in victims. Some of those who survived the overdoses the weekend of Nov. 8 were saved by police officers who arrived at the scene before paramedics.

“We’ve only been doing this program for one month and in the one month, we’ve already saved 12 lives,” he said.

The pilot program required a law change to allow officers to dispense the Narcan because state laws don’t allow officers to provide medical treatment. But advocates like Evans hope the success of the program will allow it to spread statewide.

He said the program has required some education to get officers used to administering the drug, but they’re getting the hang of it.

“Our officers have seen the power of saving a life,” Evans said.

Another component to dealing with addiction — one that isn’t offered enough — is a treatment option, key parties agreed.

Doctors at Thursday’s summit said there are not enough treatment options available to handle most addictions, especially one as powerful as heroin.

Dr. Christina Delos Reyes, chief clinical officer for the Alcohol, Drug, Addiction and Mental Health Services Board of Cuyahoga County, said treatment on demand is available for those suffering from any other illness. But when it comes to addiction, the wait lists to get into treatment facilities is long.

“What we are not doing well is we do not have access to treatment,” she said. “We do not have treatment on demand for addiction.”

The day concluded with small-group, brainstorming sessions.

A key takeaway was that officials from the Cleveland Clinic and the U.S. Attorney’s Office said they hope members of law enforcement and those who treat addiction can foster partnerships from the summit to create a better way to treat heroin addiction.

Dettelbach called the group that met Thursday “unprecedented.”

“Heroin is not just one or one group of people’s problem,” he said.

Dettelbach said the solution requires physicians stepping up to be careful about how they prescribe pain medicine. It requires parents locking up their pain medication and it requires working with the courts and medical professionals to make sure those who need treatment have access to it.

“It’s going to require an all-of-the-above solution because heroin is an all-of-the-above problem.”

Contact reporter Loren Genson at (330) 721-4063 or lgenson@medina-gazette.com.