Heroin Hits Home: What We’ve Learned

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CLEVELAND-- Three years ago, Ohio had a new law that had helped close most of its so-called "pill mills" - pain clinics where doctors basically prescribed large doses of opiates just because patients wanted them - and many people may have assumed the state's heroin problem would soon subside.

It was, in fact, only just beginning.

As the I-Team chronicled in a national, award-winning series ("Prescription for Disaster"), what many people failed to realize was the connection that had already been established between doctors who were legitimately prescribing opiates and an increasing heroin problem.

Opiates are heroin's legal cousins - painkillers that go by names such as Oxycodone and Oxycontin.

People on the front lines of the addiction battle saw a crisis that was, quietly, already under way.

"This epidemic started between pharmaceutical companies and some primary care physicians," Counseling Center CEO Ed Hughes told us in 2011.

Hughes is a top authority on the epidemic who's based in Portsmouth in Scioto County at the southern tip of Ohio.

We traced the spread of the epidemic north here to Cleveland.

In 2011, we visited Judge David Matia's drug court. On that day, 19 of 38 defendants said they were heroin or opiate dependent.

When we went back last week, 27 of 32 defendants reported their addictions were to heroin or opiates.

Matia said there needs to be more treatment including drug-free halfway houses for people who've completed treatment to transition back into society in a safe environment.

"We have Habitat for Humanity," Matia said. "We need Habitat for Dependency."

Judge Matia hopes that some of the $180 million that the Ohio Legislature is considering spending on treatment will go into such halfway houses.

The medical community is also taking a new, harder look at its prescribing practices.

Dr. Ed Covington, a national expert who runs the Cleveland Clinic's Neurological Center for Pain, said research once suggested that people who took opiates for pain were less likely to get addicted than those who did heroin for fun.

That turned out to be dead wrong.

"We were fed a pack of lies," Dr. Covington said bluntly.

He described doctors' prescribing practices for opiates as "flying by the seat of our pants" because there really has not been research done on the effects of prescribing opiates for the long-term.

Three years ago, University Hospitals streamlined and tightened its opiate prescription guidelines, becoming one of the first hospitals to do so.

"We have a public health duty," said Dr. Michael Anderson, UH's Chief Medical Officer, "as organized medicine.. to see the fact that more people in our state are dying from opioid overdoses than car accidents. We've got to step up to the plate."

A lot of people are now stepping up to the plate.

Just this week, as our new series was gaining a lot of attention, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Tim McGinty announced a new commercial campaign designed to raise awareness of the heroin epidemic.

McGinty said the ads would be paid for with drug forfeiture money.

On the federal level, U.S. Attorney Steve Dettelbach has labeled fighting the heroin epidemic "a top priority" for the Justice Department in northern Ohio.

Dettelbach now leads a high-level working group of prosecutors, judges, doctors, and law enforcement-- all trying to coordinate ways to stem the tide of heroin deaths that now exceed 1,700 a year in Ohio.

One way to literally cut the death rate is with naloxone - otherwise known as the "heroin antidote."

Every Friday at the Free Clinic on Euclid Avenue in Cleveland, MetroHealth Medical Center helps with Project DAWN (Death Avoided With Naloxone) by giving out free naloxone kits to the family members of addicts. *CLICK for more on Project DAWN.

The drug has been proven to reverse an opioid overdose.

We have learned that, in the battle against this epidemic, nothing comes easy, but almost every effort is important.

Why?

Because so many people are dying.

This epidemic did not spring up overnight, but now it has the state's attention.

One person whose been fighting to get the word out is Rob Brandt, who founded "Robby's Voice" in honor of his son who overdosed and died in 2011.

He stresses that it's important for everyone to open their eyes.

"I don't think we believed that this could happen to us, that it could happen in our house," Brandt said.

The sad and scary fact is that it can happen anywhere.

*Web extra: Watch extended comments from Steve Dettelbach below*

Click here for Bill Sheil's ‘Heroin Hits Home’ series.