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Investigator: Heroin epidemic hits Cleveland suburbs

8:31 AM, Jul 31, 2012   |    comments
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When law enforcement officials look at the numbers lately, they can see a big shift in drug use in Northeast Ohio. Heroin seizures and arrests were triple that of just a few years ago, while the numbers for powder and crack cocaine were falling.

Heroin overdose deaths were rising, as were the numbers of heroin addicts seeking treatment. And as law enforcement started to look at where the increase of heroin use was centered, they found it in the rich suburban communities.

Rocky River. North Olmsted. Mentor. Chardon. Gates Mills. Brunswick. Medina. Bay Village. The list goes on.

"It is virtually like going to get fast food out there, it is so accessible," said Lauren, 20, a heroin addict for four years from Rocky River who has been clean for about six months. "You'd be surprised. You pull up at a red light in Cleveland and people yell at you, asking what you need."

This is what local and regional law enforcement agencies think about the growing heroin epidemic (from this year's Organized Crime and Drug Enforcement Task Force Great Lakes Strategic Plan): "Heroin has emerged as the greatest drug threat in the Great Lakes Region as heroin availability, rates of abuse and related crime are increasing. The availability of heroin has increased over the past several years, and in 2011 heroin surpassed cocaine as the greatest drug threat in the Great Lakes Region."  

In another section the report says that "In 2007 only 42 percent of the state and local law enforcement agencies reported high or moderate availability of heroin; by 2011, more than 62 percent of respondents were indicating that availability is high or moderate - compared with 50 percent nationally. These data are consistent with anecdotal reports of high or increasing heroin availability by law enforcement officials in every state in the region."

Heroin is now much easier to find than crack cocaine. "Approximately ten years ago, the drug of choice in Cleveland was powdered cocaine and crack cocaine," said FBI Agent Todd Platt, who works in the Northern Ohio Drug Task Force. "Back ten years ago, you couldn't find heroin on the streets on the streets of Cleveland."

"That has completely switched around right now," Platt continued. "Powdered and crack cocaine is difficult to find now, and the distribution of heroin is everywhere in Cleveland."

Heroin use now is an epidemic in Cleveland and the rest of the country. What was once seen as a drug used by junkies on the street, who tried to find a vein in their arm using a tourniquet, and generally regarded as being on fringe of the illegal drug community, is now a common drug used by high school kids.

How that came about is based upon a number of factors. Prescription pain medication use shot up in recent years, and much of it was stolen by kids from their parents' medicine cabinet or bought illegally on the street.

But the popularity of the prescription drugs shot their price much higher and they were more difficult to get. Users addicted to the pain meds - Oxycontin, Percocet, Opana, among other - switched to the cheaper heroin when the pain meds were harder to find.

The cheapness of heroin was by design, as the Mexican drug cartels - which had taken over opium growing and distribution in recent years -- could see they had a captive market in the suburbs fueled by the pain med addiction. They also changed heroin slightly so it was more like powered cocaine than before, able to be snorted and smoked more easily.

FBI Agent Platt estimates that the amount of profit for 10 kilograms of cocaine is equal to the profits from one kilo of heroin.

"You can get a bag of heroin for one shot for about $20 right now which is enough to get you as high as a couple of Oxycontin pills which will run you about 60 to 80 dollars," said Asst. U.S. Attorney Joe Pinjuh, who oversees narcotics cases for the U.S. Department of Justice's Northern Ohio District.

"One of the largest contributing factors in heroin use growing so quickly is the makeup of the new heroin," Pinjuh said. "It's not the heroin of the late sixties and the seventies where you had to inject it. This heroin you can snort. And by and large, most of the young people who try heroin for the first time, try it by snorting it."

"Because there is less of a stigma, in their minds, attached to that," Pinjuh continued. "If I'm putting heroin up my nose in a club, I'm cool. I'm taking it and putting it in my arm with a syringe, I'm an addict."

And it is that powerful addiction of heroin that makes it so dangerous. Injecting it gets one much higher than snorting it, so as the body needs more to keep the high going, the addicts tend to shoot almost entirely. And the amount used per day, goes from a few small bags for $60 to a full gram for about $150.

Dr. Ted Parran, assistant medical director for Rosary Hall, the addiction treatment center for St. Vincent-Charity Medical Center in Cleveland, said heroin and other opiates are the most physically addictive drug and it is very difficult to stop the use.

"Easily 50 percent, some studies indicate that it is 80 percent, will have a relapse sometime in the first six months of trying to get sober," Dr. Parran said. "People find themselves hooked on opiates and they can't get them so easily from doctors anymore, but they find they can buy heroin on the street from dealers. The problem is they don't know what purity they are getting, and a lot of the overdoses come from that."

The addicts themselves are seeing the users getting younger. ""They're experimenting with heroin a lot sooner than they used to," said Ryan, of Parma, who has been sober about four years.

"I've been in detox about five times, and every time I would go there would be three or four young girls, 16 or 17-yeard old girls from Strongsville, all from nice neighborhoods, all strung out," he said.

But despite the wide use in the suburbs, the majority of heroin dealing is still going on in the inner city. The drug cartels are using their  crack cocaine dealers to sell heroin, and the suburban kids come into the city to buy.

"You go into East Cleveland and heroin is everywhere," said David, who has been sober for a few months after using for about five years. "I've bought from East 55th street and Euclid Avenue all the way down to East 200th Street. But it isn't like they are standing on the street corner just waving it around. You have to have contacts, and you have to know some people. You get those through friends you know who also use."

The numbers reflect how much heroin is now being sold in Northeast Ohio. In the USADOJ Northern District (northern half of the state of Ohio), heroin seizures went from 11 kilograms in 2007 to 54 kilograms in 2010. The Ohio State Highway Patrol has seized 36.2 pound of heroin through June of this year, compared to 16.9 pounds in all of 2009.

The Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner reports that heroin overdoses have nearly tripled since 2006. Admissions at publicly funded treatment facilities went up 69 percent for heroin users between 2006 (4246 admissions) and 2010 (7185 admissions).

Law enforcement is doing its best to stem the tide, but it is difficult to get a handle on the problem when high potency heroin is coming into the country at a cheap price, and the demand is there as more and more suburban use get pulled into the ring.

"Like any other businessmen, these heroin dealers aren't stupid," Pinjuh said. "They know where the demand is, what's selling right now. The thing that is selling right now is heroin. And it is more available now because the large cartels are moving more of it into the country, more of it into Ohio."

"It come across the border into the United States at somewhere between 90 to 95 percent pure," Pinjuh continued. "It's selling on the streets at 10 to 15 percent pure. So all you have to do is do the math." 

But while these numbers paint a certain picture, the heroin epidemic on a personal level can be very painful. Rob and Carla Brandt of Olmsted Falls watched their son Robbie descend into the abyss that started with prescription drugs and morphed into heroin use.

"When he was clean he was incredibly outgoing," Rob Brandt said. "He brought energy into a room, and he engaged adults in conversation when he was a little kid. He loved sports, playing hockey, roller blading, skateboarding and bikes."

But in high school he got addicted to pain meds. His father said he became "Irritable. Crabby. Short-tempered. Slept a lot. Demotivated. He was definitely different."

Robbie Brant graduated from Olmsted Falls High School in 2009. ,  He went through a number of inpatient and outpatient treatment programs for his pain med addiction, but relapsed each time. "He said to me 'Mom, I didn't choose this. I didn't choose to be an addict. This chose me,' " Carla Brandt said.

He joined the Ohio National Guard in the spring of 2011, and was going to be deployed to Afghanistan in November. His parents said he indicated he would like to be in law enforcement after military service.

But in the summer after basic training, Robbie Brandt relapsed again, and heroin was more and more his drug of choice. "He was found in a fast food parking lot in East Cleveland in October of last year, dead from a heroin overdose.

"I blame myself a lot," Carla said. "I blame myself because I saw the signs and I feel like I should have done things differently. It's that 'What if' and 'I should have' that goes through my mind every day.

"But I don't think it is a reflection of our parenting at all," Carla continued. "We are good parents. But he fell into this disease, and he could get out of it."

"He couldn't do it himself and it took his life."

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