EBR Coroner: Renewed popularity in heroin is creating rise in overdose deaths

EBR Coroner: Renewed popularity in heroin is creating rise in overdose deaths
Photo provided by MGN Online.

POSTED: Thursday, August 8, 2013 - 4:36pm

UPDATED: Tuesday, August 13, 2013 - 4:56pm

Illegal drugs fall in and out of trend based on a variety of factors. However, the recent spike in use of a Schedule I narcotic has had deadly results.

“There have been seven deaths this year related to the use of heroin,” Dr. William “Bo” Clark, East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner, explained. “There were five deaths last year for the entire year. It’s possible we could see twice as many as that by the end of the year.”

Realistically, most end up in jail rather than an early grave.

“I would say that we’re seeing more arrests for heroin than we have had in the past,” Cpl. L’Jean McKneely, Baton Rouge Police Department, said. “We have seen more heroin on the streets, but we’re not making an effort on that particular front. We’re targeting all drugs.”

Explaining why we are seeing a spike in the number of heroin users is something that cannot be attributed to one cause. However, Dr. Clark finds cause for investigation.

“I have two theories,” he said when asked about the contributing factors. “One has to do with the recent change in Louisiana law. The penalty for distribution of heroin has been reduced from 99 years in jail to a minimum of 5 and a maximum of 30 years. I believe the lesser penalty has increased the willingness of drug dealers to take a chance.”

However, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has noted that heroin use is a problem that’s increased nation-wide over recent years. In fact, the number of people who say they have used heroin in the past year jumped 53.5 percent from 2002 to 2011. There seems to be no coincidence that the number of deaths related to the use of heroin over the same time period saw a 55 percent increase as well.

Dr. Clark’s second theory falls inline with the recently-released data. It was reached based on conversations he had with addicts.

“I asked several people why they use heroin and they all said that the price of prescription pills has gotten so high that it’s cheaper to get heroin,” Dr. Clark noted. “Most of them are saying that they’re getting it from New Orleans.”

Regulation of prescription medication has decreased availability and access to painkillers such as oxycodone, which has similar effects to heroin. In addition, drug companies had reformulated the pills making them harder to crush and snort. Both of these factors have pushed addicts to heroin as an alternative.

“The receptor that processes heroin builds up a tolerance so more opiates are required to get the same sensation,” Dr. Clark explained. “That’s why you see people use higher and higher doses, which can get to the lethal stages.”

Dr. Clark explained that the most common drug overdoses occur when there are mixtures.

“They mix cocaine with opiates or marijuana with oxycodone or alcohol and create a dangerous toxicity in their body,” he said.

So simply cutting off the supply will not end the possible outcome of overdose. Rather, Dr. Clark wants people to be aware and seek treatment. That’s why he turned to Facebook with the following message.

“We investigate death here. It gives us unique insight into what is causing premature death in our community. There is a disturbing trend that we are monitoring and we feel that it is time to address it here.

“We don't know how to say this gently. Don't use heroin. Don't snort, smoke, inject, mix it in your drink. Don't. We have had a horrible rash of heroin overdoses that have taken young, beautiful, vibrant, hardworking and productive people from our community because they did not understand the power and evil of this drug.

“Our legislators chose to ease the penalties for selling heroin, and we are reaping the whirlwind. Don't use it. Ever. Not if you have plans to live your life. There are wildly varying strengths of it on the street, and the wrong dose from the wrong dealer can kill. There is killer heroin on the streets of Baton Rouge right now. Do not do it. Please.”

The first step you should take if you believe someone you know is developing an addiction is to address that person directly.

“I would talk to that person who you think is addicted and ask that person if he or she wants voluntary help,” Dr. Clark said. “You’d be surprised how many people will agree to go into treatment. There are some who will not recognize that they have a problem.”

If you believe the severity of the person’s addiction could cause grave danger but they refuse treatment, you can reach out to the Coroner’s Office for help.

“You can have a person involuntarily committed if you believe they are a grave danger to their self or someone else,” Dr. Clark said. “There is a four-step process that has to be completed and it begins at my office.”

For more information on how to get help for involuntary committal, click here.

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