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Heroin no longer urban-only crisis

This is the first in a four-part series on the growing problem of heroin addiction in our communities.

This past summer, East Lyme First Selectman Paul Formica saw a public health crisis emerging in his community. The crisis sent some residents to the hospital and nearly killed many others. At least two residents died.

The crisis is heroin. It motivated Mr. Formica to schedule a community discussion at which 60-some people ranging from parents and grandparents to police and health care workers joined the conversation about the drug and how to combat it. The town is expected to soon announce a follow-up meeting.

"This is out there; it's what's happening," Mr. Formica said. "Education about it is the key."

Most people remain ill informed about the opiate heroin, as well as about the opioid prescription painkillers that so often are the gateway to its abuse. The drugs are devastating many lives. Mr. Formica took the right step to get East Lyme residents talking and he should move to schedule the follow up meeting as soon as possible. More communities need to begin the discussion.

The East Lyme forum brought people with a variety of perspectives together to speak openly and frankly about heroin. Such discussion also is occurring statewide, via a Connecticut Conference of Municipalities initiative in which Mr. Formica is active.

We need such open discussion for many reasons, including the fact that so much of what we all thought we knew about the drug has changed dramatically in recent years.

Sadly, society appeared to not care enough when heroin use was restricted mostly to only the hardest of hard-core addicts who were primarily male, poor and young.

Now, however, use has been increasing at a rate that is alarming health and mental health workers, drug rehabilitation centers, police, lawmakers and public officials. According to Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services statistics, some 8,000 of its clients named heroin as their primary drug in 2011, but by 2013, that number had jumped to 10,000. There was at least one heroin-related death in 65 of the state's 169 towns in 2013.

Chief State Medical Examiner's office information shows the average age of those who died by heroin use in 2013 was 41.4, but victims were as young as 18 and as old as 87. There were 34 deaths in New London County, 11 in Norwich alone.

Fueling spikes in heroin use is the over-prescription and subsequent misuse and abuse of opioid painkillers such as oxycodone, first marketed in the 1990s. When prescriptions run out and securing pills via elicit means becomes too expensive, those addicted to opioids often turn to heroin.

On the street, heroin sells for as little as $5 a bag, say local police, a very cheap high.

The results are deadly: 174 heroin deaths in the state in 2012, according to the Chief State Medical Examiner's office. By 2013, that number jumped to 257. Another 177 accidental deaths in 2013 involved methadone, hydrocodone, oxycodone or Fentanyl - all opioids. In the first six months of 2014, 151 Connecticut residents died of opioid overdoses.

Local police who respond to many accidental overdoses say deaths represent only a fraction of the overall problem. For everyone who dies, several more people are successfully revived from accidental overdoses. At the Southeastern Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence detox center, where the vast majority of clients were once alcoholics, 65 percent now seek to overcome the grip of heroin or opioids.

Middle-aged men are now among the previously unseen demographics of heroin addiction. Heroin use is more common in suburban and rural towns, increasing fears that despite its dangers, it could become a mainstream recreational drug.

"I'm told Sterling is a good place to buy it. Who would have thought Sterling?" said one local long-time alcohol and drug counselor.

East Lyme also defies the old demographic stereotype of where heroin users live - as does Stonington, Waterford, Ledyard, or most southeastern Connecticut towns. Those stereotypes are now largely irrelevant. Mr. Formica is right to strive to curb the problem by being open and forthright about it. Such attitudes help save lives.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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