Rapid Growth of Drug Abuse in Ohio
In the year 2016, Montgomery County in Ohio had 349 deaths attributable to opioid overdose. As of June 1st, 2017, the number of deaths attributable to opioid overdoses was already 360, with more than half the year remaining. That represents an increase in deaths due to opioids of over 100%.
If this were just an isolated incident, it would be still be concerning, but it is not. As of 2015, Ohio had the highest number of prescription opioid deaths of any state in the country. Roughly 1800 people died from that drug alone and another 2200 died from overdoses of other drugs.
Experts and state officials alike have referred to this looming crisis as an epidemic, and the description is quite apt. Despite a plethora of preventative actions having been taken by the state, drug abuse in Ohio still appear to be increasing, rather than decreasing.
To make matters worse, prescription opioids only represent roughly half of the problem. A second epidemic is also sweeping Ohio: abuse of heroin. The combination of these two simultaneous epidemics has hindered official responses designed to the lessen the impact of drug abuse.
Rise of Drug Abuse in Ohio in the 2000s
Like every state in the country, Ohio has experienced a rise and fall in drug abuse as specific drugs rise and fall in popularity. And just as crack was nationwide the drug of choice in 80s, prescription opiates were the drug of choice in the early 2000s.
In the state of Ohio, this type of drug quickly started to see higher levels of use than average. There were a number of factors that contributed to this, with no clear indication of any specific dominant factor.
One important factor was clearly the economy. As a rust belt state, Ohio was already facing some economic distress by the start of the 2000s and the post-9/11 economic downturn exacerbated that situation. A study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) shows that the vast majority of drug abuse in Ohio occurs in rural areas. This corresponds with the areas that were primarily hit worst by the slowing economy.
Another factor leading to the rapid increase in opioid drug abuse in Ohio is the fact that simply wasn’t prepared for this type of epidemic. The drug epidemics of the past century were primarily located in major cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Ohio’s largest city is only a fraction of the size of those cities, which meant it didn’t seem like drug abuse was a significant threat. The state simply wasn’t prepared to combat the problem when it shifted from being primarily an urban problem to primarily a rural problem.
It also wasn’t prepared for the speed of growth of the problem. Nationally, drug overdose rates in the U.S. roughly doubled from 1999 to current day. However, drug abuse in Ohio, the rate actually tripled in the same time period. The problem simply grew faster than the state could respond.
Whatever the exact reasons for the growth of prescription opioid abuse, by roughly 2010, it was rampant and state officials were only starting to meaningfully combat the problem. This is roughly when the second epidemic hit. One of the few things limiting the growth of drug abuse in Ohio was the fact that prescription pharmaceuticals are extremely expensive, especially on the black market. This is where heroin came in.
Heroin is also an opioid. But unlike prescription opioids, it is quite inexpensive. Heroin can be found in most communities for under $10, making it much more accessible to the average person.
In addition to a low cost, heroin has increased in accessibility due to administration methods. During the AIDS epidemic of the 80s, there was a huge stigma against using any type of drugs that required injections. However, that stigma has most disappeared in the 2000s. Clean needles are much more accessible than they used to be, in part to prevent the spread of disease, and HIV medication has improved dramatically, meaning the virus is not as deadly as it once was. Furthermore, orally administered options for heroin are much more common than they previously were.
These factors combined such that many people who were addicted to prescription opioids soon found themselves instead addicted to heroin. And, in part due to the geography of the state, shipments of heroin to the state were near constant in just a matter of years.
Both heroin and prescription drug abuse are massive problems for any community. However, the effects of the problem differ, which makes it more difficult for the state of Ohio to provide an effective response.
For prescription opioids, the main problem is lethality. Prescription opioids are by far the most deadly drug currently being abused in Ohio. While the number of people in Ohio currently abusing heroin is higher than those abusing prescription drugs, the number of deaths from prescription drug overdoses continues to dwarf those from heroin. In fact, the number of deaths from prescription drug overdose is roughly equal to the number of deaths from all other drug overdoses combined.
Heroin, while less deadly, is significantly more addictive and more accessible. Prescription opioids may have originally been the gateway drug that led to heroin abuse, but at this point the widespread accessibility of heroin is primarily spurring the growth. Abuse has become so rampant that users and sellers alike have become quite brazen with use and distribution.
State Efforts to End the Epidemic
While state efforts have run into many roadblocks, it can’t be said that the state of Ohio isn’t trying to stem the tide of drug abuse. Millions are spent each year on drug treatment and prevention. As a single example, the state spends $70 million a year just on treatment for babies that are born addicted to illegal or prescription drugs, and that represents only a fraction of the problem.
In addition to money spent on treatment, the state implemented legislation designed to help curb the problem. One of the biggest pieces of legislation was Casey’s Law, which allows family or friends to petition a court for involuntary treatment for a drug addict. Reporting and consent rules were also strengthened, and additional penalties were instituted for providing drugs to pregnant women.
Finally, a 2014 law allows law enforcement to carry Naloxone. This is an opioid antagonist that has a high success rate of saving lives during an overdose, and has already saved thousands of lives since the law was passed.
While prescription drug abuse and heroin represent the two largest problems for Ohio, they do not represent the only drugs abused in the state. Just about every illegal drug that exists can be found within the state of Ohio. However, only a few are found in high enough quantities to be notable.
Of those found in high quantities, both marijuana and methamphetamines have seen a notable increase in usage in the past few years as well. While the abuse of these drugs isn’t even close to the level of abuse of opioids, the increase in use in almost certainly a side effect of the increase of opioid abuse and could be problematic in the future.
On a better note, though, some drugs have seen significant decreases in usage. Primarily cocaine usage and alcohol abuse has fallen considerably. The latter is particularly important because alcohol use in combination with drug use massively increases the danger of overdose and because alcohol abuse is one of the most common causes of domestic abuse.