Opinion Columns & Blogs

How heroin has become the nation’s latest drug epidemic

An epidemic has silently swept across our nation and is now affecting more people than ever before. On Tuesday, the Kaiser Family Foundation released a study that found nearly 4 in 10 people know someone who has been addicted to prescription painkillers — that includes 25 percent who say it was a family member or close friend, and 2 percent who admit it was their own addiction.

While this addiction to painkillers has been on the rise, it has corresponded with the rise of another drug available for far cheaper: heroin.

According to Sgt. Jay Wells of the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office — as well as many other experts — many addicts begin to substitute heroin for OxyContin and other painkillers when their addiction is strong and their supply runs out. The price of heroin is far less than prescription painkillers, and the high can be just as strong.

In the United States, there were 16,235 overdose deaths from prescription opioid painkillers in 2013, and an additional 8,260 from heroin.

And while heroin use has consistently been on the rise since authorities began combating prescription drug abuse, the statistics from overdoses are misleading.

“Most overdoses that involve heroin also involve a mixture of many drugs,” Sgt. Wells said. “We call them polydrug overdoses — and as the cause of death is not directly a result of heroin, these polydrug deaths aren’t included in heroin overdose statistics.”

This could make the real number of heroin-related overdoses far greater than what is actually calculated.

You don’t have to look far to find stories of families touched by the devastation of addiction. It’s in our schools, our neighborhoods, our colleges and throughout our community. And it’s getting worse.

In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of deaths involving heroin has almost tripled since 2010.

My nephew Jack is a part of these statistics. He passed away from a polydrug overdose, the basis of which was heroin, nine years ago at the age of 21.

He was a normal teenager, played on the high school football team, had average grades and never missed curfew.

Jack admitted to trying marijuana in the summer before his senior year of high school, but he wasn’t a “pothead.” Jack had never fallen into alcohol or other substances before. He was a happy guy who loved football, snowboarding, drama and choir.

He went to Cuesta College in the fall. By Thanksgiving, Jack had changed drastically. He had lost weight, his grades were failing and something about him had changed. He would drop out of Cuesta before the end of the first semester.

We were shocked, and tried desperately, but failed to get through to him.

He would move to San Francisco, work odd jobs, talk about coming home to the Central Coast if he could save enough money, but was arrested three times for theft — all to feed his sudden and emerging drug habit.

When he finally moved home, he stole from his parents and eventually grandparents to feed his addiction to heroin that had seemingly surfaced out of nowhere.

When we finally got Jack in rehab, he stayed for nearly nine months. But just as Sgt. Wells mentioned without having known Jack’s story, “heroin today is nearly twice as potent but its purity is far less consistent. Many recovering addicts overdose after having been released from rehab because they underestimate its potency.”

After having been clean for around 6 months, Jack overestimated his tolerance and overdosed in a hotel in Los Angeles two weeks after he had left rehab — June 3, 2006.

Jack went from being a happy, healthy high school graduate to an overdose statistic in 2 1/2 years.

But Jack’s death isn’t just part of the statistics. It’s a huge hole in our family that we feel every year near the anniversary of his death, his birthday and the holidays. He’s a reminder that heroin use isn’t something that happens exclusively in back alleys or on Skid Row. We don’t know for sure that Jack used prescription medication on the road to heroin addiction, but his spiral into addiction happened fast and was almost invisible.

Addiction happens in our neighborhoods and happens to young people seemingly overnight.

To prevent this trend in our communities, we should have open conversations with our children. If they have an injury and a doctor prescribes pain medication, do not let them self-medicate. Make sure they’re only taking the recommended dosage, and properly dispose of the unused medicine once the injury has healed.

We can also do more to prevent deaths as a result of overdose in our community. Opening conversations about drug abuse, educating about Good Samaritan laws (which protect individuals who come forward to save someone), and providing first responders with naloxone, a life-saving medication that interrupts the opiate response in a potential overdose, are all steps we can take to combat this epidemic.

We also have two exceptional court-based systems in San Luis Obispo County, which have changed and saved many lives.

The first, the Adult and Juvenile Drug Court systems, is a comprehensive program of treatment and accountability that offers participants the opportunity to fully recover from their addiction and possibly have charges removed from their record if they show consistent success. Drug Court is administered by the San Luis Obispo County Drug and Alcohol Services; more information is available online or at 781-4753.

The second is the Veterans Treatment Court, which helps men and women who have served in the armed services overcome legal challenges or addiction. With a location in San Luis Obispo since 2013, more information can be found by calling the San Luis Obispo County Veterans Services Office at 781-5766.

Finally, help is available for anyone struggling with substance abuse or trying to help a loved one cope with addiction. The Celebrate Recovery program is a 12-step, faith-based program run through many churches in San Luis Obispo County and open to everyone, regardless of religious beliefs. Through honesty, transparency, vulnerability and courage, anyone can overcome addiction. More information can be found at www.abcchurch.org/CelebrateRecovery.

John Allan Peschong served in President Ronald Reagan’s administration and as a senior strategist for the campaigns of President George W. Bush. He is a founding partner of Meridian Pacific Inc., a public relations and affairs company, and serves as chairman of the SLO County Republican Party. His column has been appearing twice a month in The Tribune, in rotation with liberal columnist Tom Fulks.

Editor’s note

John Peschong is planning to run for the county Board of Supervisors District 1 seat currently held by Frank Mecham. For that reason, Peschong is stepping down as a Tribune columnist. This is his final column.

If you are interested in becoming our next conservative columnist — an unpaid, freelance position — we’d like to hear from you. Contact Opinion Editor Stephanie Finucane at sfinucane@thetribunenews.com or call 805-781-7933.