Heroin use is rapidly rising in Stark County, having caused at least 11 deaths last year. Users are mixing their heroin with other, more potent painkillers. And some users aren’t even aware.
Just five years ago, no one in Stark County died from a heroin overdose.
Last year, the brown or off-white powdery substance claimed the lives of 11 in the county and possibly more.
Rick Walters, Stark County Coroner’s Office investigator, said the office is awaiting toxicology results on several other deaths that occurred in 2010.
And the first heroin death of 2011 came on Jan. 7, Walters said.
Matt Fishburn, 25, knows first-hand the power of heroin addiction.
He believes he would be dead if he hadn’t been sent to the Stark Regional Community Correction Center in Canton for counseling. Fishburn was arrested in October for violating probation on previous drug charges.
“I got high the night before I went to see my probation officer,” Fishburn said. “He arrested me on the spot. I had moved without telling him, I failed a drug test at work. ... I did quite a bit of messing up from July to October.
“I don’t know how much longer I would have lived. Heroin slows everything down. You can only slow your heart down so much. ... I’m very lucky.”
HIGH, SICK & SUFFERING
Fishburn was sentenced to six months at the correction center. He is awaiting trial on heroin trafficking charges.
“Jail would’ve done me no good at all,” he said. “In jail, you meet other criminals, and you learn better ways of how to get around the law. It’s a school for felons. This (sentence) saved my life. If I wasn’t here, it would’ve only gotten worse.
“I had a friend who died in June from a heroin overdose, and that still wasn’t enough to stop me.”
Heroin users not only shoot up to get “high,” but they also shoot up to feel better from the drug’s effects or withdrawal.
“I had to shoot up at 5 o’clock in the morning just to go to work so I could physically stand there to do it,” said Fishburn, a welder. “You get real sick. You have flu-like symptoms ... vomiting, nausea. You can’t sleep, and you’re sweating and freezing at the same time. You’re sitting there with three blankets and two fans on you, and it doesn’t work.”
DEADLY AND ABUNDANT
Investigators say some heroin users mix heroin with cocaine or other powerful painkillers such as Fentanyl, Xanax, Dilaudid and OxyContin — combinations that can be deadly.
“There’s (also) a real pure form of heroin floating around now,” Walters said. “Some of this stuff is what we used to call ‘China white.’ It is really pure. It kills so fast, we’ve transported (users to the morgue) with the needle still in the arm.”
Page 2 of 4 - Dr. John Sorboro runs the Addiction Outreach Clinic in Kent and serves as the psychiatry department chairman at St. Elizabeth and St. Joseph hospitals in Youngstown. He said some of his heroin patients are stunned to discover their urine tests show opiates other than heroin. The users had been unaware that their heroin had been “cut” or mixed with other, more potent drugs.
Sorboro’s clinic is advertised on a billboard along Cleveland Avenue NW at Lake Center Street in Lake Township. The billboard shows a woman lying on the floor with a syringe at hand. Sorboro said he began seeing heroin use in Northeast Ohio escalate three or four years ago.
Canal Fulton police noticed heroin in the area in 2007 when a young man died from an overdose. Several similar overdoses followed, though none died, said Police Chief David Frisone.
“This is going on everywhere. It’s not isolated to Stark County,” Frisone said.
The Canton/Stark County Crime Lab saw nearly 100 drug cases involving heroin in 2010, said Jay Spencer, a forensic scientist. That’s a 10 percent increase from 2009.
“In 2006, we saw 35 submissions (of heroin-related evidence),” he said. “Last year, we were at 84.”
The evidence used to be residue, syringes or other types of paraphernalia. Now it’s the actual drug.
Sgt. John Oliver, who heads the Stark County Metropolitan Narcotics Unit, said his caseload has risen dramatically.
“Five years ago, (heroin) was pretty much null and void. It was ‘in’ and then it disappeared, and now it’s back. We had eight active cases last year,” he said.
“Heroin’s just a nasty drug. It’s very addictive. You need a whole lot of help to get off of it.”
Keith Hochadel, chief operating officer of Quest Recovery Services, which treats drug addiction, said heroin users who arrive at his agency — on their own or through the criminal justice system — may go to the Crisis Center for medical detoxification. Residential treatment at Wilson Hall for men or Deliverance House for women could follow, but other options are available.
Typically, however, medical treatment is necessary.
“What happens with this — and all drugs — is that people become physically dependent on it and, in withdrawal, they could end up dying from not having the substance,” Hochadel said. Other types of medication, such as methadone, become necessary for recovery. Sorboro advocates suboxone.
Users in Stark County range in age from 20 to 40. Walters said that is the age range for most heroin deaths here. The oldest person the coroner’s office saw last year in a heroin-related death was 49, he said.
Authorities believe heroin comes to the local area from Mexico, and it’s not cheap. Oliver said heroin costs about five times more than powder cocaine.
Page 3 of 4 - Sorboro said the “high” from heroin can last up to four hours, and the drug can be out of the user’s system in 10 to 12 hours — when the human body goes into withdrawal. Users can become addicted with as little as three weeks of regular use.
Fishburn said he did everything to hide his heroin use. He has used makeup to cover purple bruises on the insides of his arms, and he has explained the marks on his arms as a job hazard: “I’ve got a lot of burns and scars from being a welder.”
But the marks are permanent reminders of his addiction and isolation.
“I don’t think I was as sneaky as I thought I was. No one wanted to be around me. But then, it’s hard to watch somebody kill themselves like that,” he said.
And Fishburn knew he was spiraling out of control.
A high school dropout who earned his GED by court order, Fishburn was 18 when he moved out of his mother’s home.
He had been drinking alcohol since he was 11. A much-older cousin had introduced it to him.
“My dad left (the family) the summer before that,” Fishburn said. “Oh, I’m not blaming him. And I’m not blaming my mom. My mom just couldn’t control me. I started drinking, and it didn’t take long to progress.”
Fishburn said he was 13 or 14 when he tried cocaine, LSD and Ecstasy. Then, prescribed Percocet and Vicodin for a knee surgery at 16, he went to “older friends” he’d met through a cousin to buy Dilaudid and OxyContin “off the street.”
“Normally, on the street, if you’re selling painkillers, you can get heroin, too,” he said. “It’s cheaper, it’s stronger, and you get more for your money. Heroin’s the strongest opiate. Pills, the way they’re making them now, they gel and clog up your syringe.”
Fishburn began using heroin at 17. He used his paycheck from his job at a local restaurant to buy it. Within a couple of months of trying heroin, not only was he addicted, “I was physically going through withdrawals from it,” he said.
The drug can cost between $120 and $200 a gram, Fishburn said.He was doing a gram or two a day — spending between $250 and $400. He “shot up” three times a day, using the first half of his heroin as his first dose and splitting the remainder between the second and third.
“I’m a welder, so I make pretty good money. I was selling to support my habit, too,” he said. “I had to hold a job because if I didn’t, I wasn’t (going to get) high.” Because he also sold the drug, his suppliers gave him free heroin for personal use.
Page 4 of 4 - Fishburn tried to break free from heroin three times, although he continued using alcohol and marijuana. Once, he went without heroin for eight months.
“If you’re still using a mind-altering substance, you’re not ‘clean,’ ” said Fransaia LoDico Dietrich, executive director of the Stark Regional Community Correction Center.
Fishburn said he needed family and friends who didn’t “use.”
“I had no support group. If I’d drink six beers, I’d call the dope man,” he said.
During one struggle to quit, he called several rehabilitation centers. He wanted in-house treatment. But, he said, none of them would accept him without the $12,500 fee paid in advance. He lived in Wayne County, which had no in-house treatment facility he could afford.
So he quit his quest to become drug- and alcohol-free, a lifestyle he hadn’t known for more than half of his life.
Since he moved out of his mother’s home nearly eight years ago, Fishburn said, he hadn’t seen her a lot — until his October arrest.
Now, he said with a grin, she hasn’t missed a single visitation.
To him — that’s all that matters.
“My main goal is just building my relationship with my family back and working, being a productive member of society for once,” he said.