Crime & Courts

Many overdose, die as opioid and heroin epidemic hits SC

Parents who leave opioid prescription drugs in home medicine cabinets may be killing their kids.

And:

▪ Nearly as many people each year die from opioid and heroin overdoses in South Carolina as are killed on state roads.

▪ Most fast food franchises in South Carolina have at least one illegal drug transaction a day on their premises.

▪ Doctors who prescribe opioids such as oxycodone and Lortab need to check a state prescription drug data base to see if their patient is “doctor shopping” and already has numerous prescriptions.

Those were just a few observations by South Carolina-based DEA agents and federal prosecutors at a roundtable Thursday in Columbia aimed at increasing public awareness of the increasing dangers heroin and opioid abuse.

Opioid abuse and deaths cut across all demographic lines: rich, poor, young, old, urban, rural, black, white, and high-school- and college-educated, they said.

“It’s our young athletes, it’s our housewife, it’s our businessman, it’s our father of three,” said Rae Wooten, Charleston County coroner and the only state or local official at the session. Her county has seen opioid and heroin abuse deaths shoot up to 58 in 2015 from 41 in 2014.

“The only way to tackle this effectively is to never use it the first time,” Wooten said. “It’s like Russian roulette. Some people get addicted the first time. ... They never set out to get addicted. They set out to seek the high.”

What’s more, waiting until high school to teach young people to avoid opioids and heroin is too late, said Wooten and DEA agents at the meeting.

By high school, kids are already having “pill parties,” where they bring prescription drugs stolen from home medicine cabinets. They put the pills in a bowl, mix them around and grab a handful.

The best time to start education is middle school, Wooten said.

Beth Drake, the acting U.S. attorney for South Carolina, recommended that parents show their young teens a 49-minute DEA film called “Chasing the Dragon,” viewable on You Tube. “Dragon” is slang for an addictive drug that winds up killing you. The video dramatically tells how so-called normal people get addicted and die. Drake said she showed it to her two daughters.

Heroin and opioid abuse are related in this way: many addicts start with prescription opioids, drugs like hydrocodone, oxycodone, percocet or Lortabs, perhaps stolen from a home medicine cabinet by a neighbor, a teen who lives there or another family member.

Then, when the pill thief has become addicted, he soon finds there are no more drugs in the medicine cabinet, so he begins buying cheap bags of heroin from street dealers to feed his habit.

That’s particularly dangerous. A heroin buyer has no way of knowing what strength his dealer-bought heroin is. And heroin bought on the street may be mixed with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, that is more than 25 times as powerful as heroin. Fentanyl is used to tranquilize zoo animals and for terminally ill cancer patients, to relieve pain.

These days, the Columbia U.S. Attorney’s Office has designated prosecutor Ben Garner to work with the DEA to go after people, including doctors, who are key figures in the opioid supply chain.

A recent target was Aiken physician Mackie Walker, who pleaded guilty to selling prescriptions to addicts for some 51,580 powerful oxycodone pills – more than $1 million worth of illegally distributed drugs.

Walker, a podiatrist who sold prescriptions to patients for up to $1,000 each, is waiting to be sentenced.

“I don’t think we should refer to him as a doctor any more – as for the DEA, he was a drug dealer,” said Ron Delfidio, a supervisor in the Columbia DEA office.

Opioid and heroin abuse take more lives than violent crime. In Greenville County in 2015, 65 people died of heroin, fentanyl and opioid overdoses. The same year, 11 people were killed in homicides, said Mike Rzepczyn of the Greenville DEA office.

“In Horry County, we’ve had 80 overdose deaths this year alone,” said DEA agent Patrick Apel, whose area stretches from Florence to Myrtle Beach.

In Richland County in 2014, 36 people died from heroin and opioid overdoses; 33 died in 2015. One of those in 2014 was from a heroin overdose; in 2015, there were 10 heroin overdoses.

Lexington County data wasn’t immediately available.

The deaths almost rival those on car crashes in South Carolina: In 2015, 637 people died in vehicle crashes South Carolina. The same year, 550 died of heroin and opioid abuse.

Prescription drug trafficking is widespread. “You probably couldn’t go to a major fast food parking lot in this state and not see at least one drug deal a day. That’s the reality,” Apel said.

Overdose death statistics illustrate part of the problem.

“That doesn’t begin to count all the people who are resuscitated,” said Wooten. “The only way to to really make a huge dent in this is to get people never to use the first time.”

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

How to prevent your kids from being addicted to opioids:

▪ Do a Google search for “DEA Chasing the Dragon” – a video for ages 12 and up.

▪ Dispose of old drugs on Oct. 22, which is National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day, at hospitals, sheriff’s offices and select pharmacies.

Deaths from heroin, fentanyl and opioid abuse

65

In Greenville County in 2015

58

In Charleston County in 2015

33

In Richland County in 2015

80

In Horry County so far this year

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