We must face the challenge of drug abuse

Heroin overdoses claim about 11 lives each week in Ohio, it has been estimated. The epidemic, which has spread to the Mahoning Valley, also ruins thousands of lives and makes battlegrounds out of some neighborhoods.

Various initiatives have been undertaken to reduce the enormous human carnage caused by the spread of heroin use in Ohio. State Attorney General Mike DeWine has established a task force to focus on it. More than two dozen health care providers have had their licenses revoked for prescribing or providing opiate painkillers improperly. And street-level arrests and raids occur frequently.

Yet the epidemic continues and, in some places, seems to be intensifying.

Take Christmas Eve in Warren, for example. Police stopped a suspicious woman walking on Risher Road. A plastic bag containing a hypodermic needle, a spoon with suspected heroin residue, a metal push rod and a Chore Boy fell from her jacket.

Also that evening, Warren police stopped a suspicious vehicle near an area where gunshots were reported. Officers found inside the vehicle a case containing several hypodermic needles and six bindles of suspected heroin.

It’s important to note how widespread the heroin epidemic reaches. The three arrested by Warren police on Christmas Eve are from Warren, Girard and Southington.

The indiscriminate nature of this epidemic is why school officials in Liberty, Howland and elsewhere are keenly interested in Gov. John Kasich’s “Start Talking” program, aimed at educating middle and high school students about being drug-free. Its main goals include providing parents, guardians, educators and community leaders the tools they need to engage in conversations with youths about the importance of leading healthy, drug-free lives.

Roughly two out of 10 of high school students reported that at least once they used prescription pain relievers or painkillers without a doctor’s prescription, according to a 2011 survey of ninth- to 12th-graders by Ohio’s Health Department.

One coalition of concerned people and institutions has released an action plan to battle heroin. It includes 11 points, ranging from stricter guidelines on opiate prescriptions to ”advocating for legislation.” Precisely what new laws should be supported was not specified.

Perhaps the most important of the panel’s suggestions is ”prioritizing heroin overdose as a public health threat.” Clearly, it is just that. Last year, 606 people – that state officials know of – died from heroin overdoses. Emergency ambulance crews say that is just a fraction of the number of overdose cases they handle, sometimes saving victims’ lives.

Drug abuse is nothing new. Health care professionals noticed a serious problem after the Civil War, when some wounded soldiers became addicted to opiate painkillers.

The history of drug abuse certainly does not inspire confidence that Ohio can find a way to reduce the harm caused by heroin. But, as has been suggested, a good first step would be for legislators, health care providers and Buckeye State residents to recognize it is a serious, deadly challenge that must be faced.