MASON COUNTY — There have been three drug overdose deaths this week in Mason County.
The deaths were confirmed by Mason County Sheriff Greg Powers and have been the topic of discussion among those in local social service agencies.
This week, an email from an employee with the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources was sent to Greg Fowler of the Mason County Family Resource Network claiming the deaths were related to tainted heroin.
Powers didn’t release any names of the overdose victims, but said there’s no way to be 100 percent sure this week’s overdoses were heroin related unless a toxicology report says as much. As for tainted or bad heroin, Powers said there is no proof of that at this time and added that there is no such thing as “good” heroin.
Heroin has been invading Mason County and the surrounding areas for some time. The drug provides a cheaper high for addicts, many of whom became addicted to prescription medicine which either became too expensive or no longer available.
Kim Miller, of Prestera, a local mental health care provider in Mason County, said heroin is a relative of other natural opiates like codeine and morphine. Common synthetic opiates include Oxycontin and Roxicet (or oxycodone), oxymorphone or Dilaudid, hydrocodone like Lortab or Vicodin, methadone and Suboxone or buprenorphine). Opiates range in potency – codeine is a milder pain reliever, hydrocodone is stronger, oxycodone and oxymorphone, morphine and heroin are some of the strongest.
Miller said buying opiates off the street is an expensive problem. For example, oxycodone sells for about a dollar a milligram, a 20 milligram tablet (costing $20) keeps withdrawal symptoms and cravings down for about four hours. The daily habit for a person in this situation ranges from $100 to $160 a day, she said. Once a person starts buying opiates off the street, their habit becomes too expensive and heroin is cheaper.
“A $25 supply of heroin will last an entire day (or longer),” Miller said. “It’s a matter of economics.”
Miller went on to explain that heroin can be used in a variety of ways, including ingesting, inhaling — or “snorting” — or injecting. Inhaling or injecting drugs increases the risk of Hepatitis C, a chronic liver disease, in addition to increasing the risk of HIV and AIDS.
“The strength of heroin is not regulated because it is not made in a pharmacy or laboratory. Some heroin has other drugs and chemicals added to it, while some is more pure than others,” Miller said. “The problem is that a drug user does not know the potency of heroin until they have used too much or overdosed. Overdose happens when the central nervous system is overloaded with the opiate and breathing is anesthetized, or shallowed, to the point of the brain being oxygen deprived. Soon after, breathing shuts down, the heart shuts down and the brain shuts down and death occurs unless emergency medical intervention is provided.”
Prestera currently manages a Suboxone program to assit those trying to control opiate addiction. Miller said Suboxone is prescription medication that works well in controlling that opiate addiction when it is provided in conjunction with counseling and recovery — hence the Prestera program. Suboxone does not produce an intense euphoric feeling, but it does keep withdrawal symptoms at bay when taken at the proper dose. Taking more Suboxone does not produce a more intense euphoria so there is decreased potential for drug abuse with Suboxone. Miller said she was not aware of any recent increase in referrals to Suboxone in Mason County.
Prestera is currently wrapping up plans to start a men’s recovery home in Mason County which will be based on its successful models in Kanawha and Cabell counties. The home was widely welcomed by those in Mason County as one more resource in the fight against drugs and addiction.