Too many overdoing it

LISBON – Three deaths from earlier in the year were recently determined to have been caused by drug overdoses, bringing to 11 the number of accidental overdose deaths that have occurred in 2013.

Brandi Phillips, chief investigator for the Columbiana County Coroner’s Office, said they believe two other deaths that occurred last week will likely turn out to be from overdoses once the autopsy and toxicology results are received.

“I have no confirmation yet. I’m just suspecting,” she said of the two other deaths.

County Coroner Dr. William Graham Jr. recently ruled the March 2 deaths of two 23-year-old men – one from Wellsville and other formerly from the Lisbon area – were due to a mixed drug overdose. The former county resident was found dead at the Days Inn from a mixed drug overdose of heroin and oxycodone, while the Wellsville resident was found to have heroin, benzodiazepine and marijuana in his system.

Phillips said a 30-year-old West Virginia man died after being rushed to East Liverpool City Hospital several months ago and his death was determined to be from a heroin overdose in combination with benzodiazepine. She said it counts as a local overdose since he died in this county.

The actual cause of death in all three cases was asphyxia, or lack of oxygen. Dr. Graham said the drugs work in such a way that “the (oxygen) sensor to the brain just shuts off.”

Phillips is still working on the 2012 coroner’s report, but she said they had 27 accidental overdoses deaths for all of 2011. “I wish I knew what was going on,” she said. “This is just ridiculous.”

Heroin is increasingly a common part of these mixed-drug overdoses, if not the dominant drug, which does not surprise Brian McLaughlin, director of county Drug Task Force, who said heroin availability and usage in the county exploded in the mid 2000s.

The DTF went from confiscating a combined 220 units of heroin between 1992 and 2004 to nearly 1,500 units in 2005 alone. Although the amount seized has tapered off, heroin usage has not. Meanwhile, the number of drug overdoses in the county increased during the same period, although it has leveled off as of late.

McLaughlin said there is a simple solution, although he doubts the addict would find it that easy: “They need to leave the heroin alone. That’s what’s going on. If you don’t leave the heroin alone. it’s going to eventually kill you.”

After the two young men overdosed on March 2, the DTF checked to determine if there might be a “bad” batch of the heroin circulating in the county. McLaughlin said that was ruled out after their investigation determined the men likely obtained their heroin from two different suppliers.

McLaughlin believes another contributing factor is that in the search for a greater high, some users begin mixing heroin with other drugs, or vice versa, to create a “hotter shot,” with the resulting combination often proving lethal.

McLaughlin believes many of users turn to heroin because of the cost. “A lot them start out as pill users but many find that heroin is cheaper, and off they go,” he said. A unit dose of heroin (.03 grams) sells for about $20.

Most drug users start with something else and graduate to heroin. Dr. Graham knows of people who overdosed after having just returned from undergoing several weeks or months of rehabilitation. They pick up where they left off, which can prove lethal since their bodies are no longer acclimated to the higher dosages they were taking upon entering rehab.

“The dose they normally take would not kill them. The person is not used to it. Their tolerance was down,” he said. “This is not an uncommon story.”

Graham knows of another instance where a heroin addict was released after an extended stay at the county jail. The inmate was picked up by his friend, who also brought along some heroin.

“He was dead before he knew it,” he said of the inmate.