Dangerous deal

Rae said she realized every day that death was just around the corner.

That didn’t stop the 33-year-old Girard woman from doing anything she could to score her next hit of heroin.

“I lied. I stole from family and friends. I took my children’s belongings. I sold my body. None of it mattered as long as I got what I thought I needed,” she said.

“I knew the risk I was taking every single day, but it didn’t matter. For me, at that time, it was worth it. It was what I needed.”

Rae, who asked that her last name not be used, said she never thought she would fall into the “heroin addiction trap.”

But in just a matter of a few years, she went from working a good-paying job to waiting tables “just to make a few extra bucks” to pay for what quickly became her drug of choice.

Today marks her 101st day drug free – a milestone she admits has been a struggle to reach.

According to area experts, Rae’s experiences are common for addicts. She said she started getting high when she was about 15. At the age of 22, while going through a divorce, a friend introduced her to cocaine. She went from snorting it to shooting up. She moved on to crack cocaine. But she got clean. A few years later she had a tonsillectomy and became addicted to the cough syrup. She started taking pills.

Then someone introduced her to heroin.

“From there it spiraled,” she said. “I knew how to use a needle because of the cocaine. I never thought I would do that but I did. I fell. I fell hard. … I couldn’t get enough. It’s so addicting. That’s what happens. It cost me.”

Law enforcement officials agree heroin addiction carries a high price tag for both the users and dealers to those tasked with stemming the tide.

Policing the problem

“There’s no doubt it’s our biggest problem,” Lt. Jeff Orr, project director of the Trumbull Ashtabula Group Law Enforcement Task Force, said. “We recognize we have a serious problem with drugs, period. But heroin seems to be the biggest at the moment.”

Authorities attribute its popularity to cost and accessibility. Heroin typically runs between $10 and $20 a hit, depending on the severity of the addiction.

“People start out with pills, prescription drugs. But overall, heroin is cheaper than prescription meds,” Orr said.

“Drug dealers have no problem giving it away for free the first time. Once they get you hooked, they’ve got you where they want you.” he said. ”You keep going back for more. Then it’s not so cheap anymore.”

Although most local police departments don’t track heroin-specific trends, officers said they see the impact it has on their communities.

“It’s everywhere. There’s no doubt heroin has spiked over the last few years,” Niles Capt. Ken Criswell said.

Warren police reported that heroin-related drug arrests are overtaking arrests involving other drugs, and running neck-and-neck with those involving marijuana. They said heroin makes up about two-thirds of the narcotics they seize and that the number of arrests involving heroin jumped at least 30 percent in the past year.

For example, Warren police reported making roughly 156 heroin-related arrests in 2012, as compared to roughly 145 arrests involving cocaine, 107 involving pills and roughly 155 surpassing other drug-related arrests. So far this year, officers discovered 78 bindles of heroin during a traffic stop in Warren on Jan. 3.

And the problem isn’t confined to the cities.

Though Orr said he cannot comment on specific ongoing investigations, TAG was involved in busting up a drug ring in January in Ashtabula.

After a yearlong investigation headed by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and FBI, authorities broke a heroin trafficking ring in Ashtabula County that resulted in the indictment of 13 people and the overdose of a young mother who was one of the customers.

Seized in the investigation were more than $325,000 in cash, firearms and five vehicles, including two Cadillacs, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Cleveland.

Straining the system

Although Warren no longer has a narcotics unit, Lt. Jeff Cole said city police spend a great deal of time fighting the local drug war.

“There’s no denying it’s a problem,” Cole said. “Drugs in general use up a lot of our time and resources, but specifically heroin.”

Warren police Chief Tim Bowers said that specialization within his department, including its narcotics unit, ended when 20 percent of its manpower was laid off several years ago, and remains down 25 officers, from 85 to 60. The city now relies on TAG for drug investigations.

Even so, he said his officers spend a lot of time and resources addressing the “chaos” associated with illegal drug activities.

“We still have drug enforcement but there’s no dedicated personnel to do secondary investigations on narcotics,” he said. “Right now, because of a lack of manpower, we react.”

He said a primary mission of any police department is answering calls for service, protecting life and maintaining order that suffers because of crimes sparked by drugs.

“You have people stealing, shooting, all kinds of stuff and you’re looking at general disorder that the uniform guys deal with every day,” he said. “The supply only exists because of the demand and as long we have the demand, we have the chaos.

“If your neighbor is doing drugs but he’s not keeping you up at night, is he a problem? It’s not necessarily the drugs by themselves. It’s the byproduct. It’s what comes with them.”

Bowers hopes to hire more officers in the next several weeks, though he doesn’t know whether the city will be able to operate at full force any time soon, or whether the added manpower will be enough to resurrect his narcotics unit.

“It’s a battle that we’re fighting with limited manpower, finances, resources,” he said.

Niles still has a narcotics unit, “but even with that, it’s hard to keep up with what’s going on out there,” Criswell said.

Assistant Warren prosecutor Traci Timko Rose said heroin is also taking a toll on the local court system.

She said dealers have gotten shrewder by carrying smaller amounts of heroin.

“They know what they’re doing,” she said. “They’ve gotten better at what they do and they get better and better all the time.”

As a result, many are able to avoid heavier criminal charges and longer sentences that come with larger quantities, she said.

“It’s affecting a whole new demographic, one that I haven’t seen since I started here 12 years ago,” she said. “We see a lot of college students from middle income families who get caught in something that just spirals. They start out maybe using a relative’s credit card, then stealing from family, friends. When that doesn’t do it anymore, they go to burglary, robbery.

”It’s sad. It’s no longer about the addiction to heroin, but the crimes you commit to maintain it,” she said.

Ultimate cost

Just as heroin activity is on the rise locally, so are heroin-related deaths.

Although the annual number of accidental drug-related deaths fluctuated from 2006 to 2011 in Trumbull County, those involving heroin totaled six in 2010 and 19 in 2011, jumping 217 percent in one year, according to statistics provided by the county Coroner’s Office. Statistics for 2012 have not yet been finalized.

“It’s important to remember that the majority of drug overdoses involve more than one drug,” Coroner Humphrey D. Germaniuk said. “They typically involve heroin mixed with other substances. But there’s no doubt that heroin has a major impact.”

Of 59 accidental drug-related deaths reported in 2011, the Coroner’s Office attributes 20 to polydrug intoxication – the use of two or more drugs – and 19 to heroin.

Germaniuk said that not only is heroin extremely easy to obtain, using it no longer has the social stigma that it once did.

“It’s everywhere,” he said. “It’s unfortunate, but true.”

Rae said her rock bottom was the loss of her husband and children, who now live with her parents. Now in counseling, she said she is working on reconciling with her kids and her parents, but the relationship she had with her ex-husband is lost.

“I did things,” she said. “It was hard for him to deal with. He had once had his own problems, but he got better. He tried, but it was getting harder and harder for him to deal with. It still hurts me to say that.”

She now refers to parts of Youngstown as her former playground areas. She said she is relying on her faith to provide the daily strength she needs to keep the addiction at a distance.

“I do have hope and my hope is in the Lord Jesus Christ and I beg Him not to let me slip and not to go back out and that He’ll keep me in His grace so that I can get through another day,” she said.