Loudoun County, VA (May 27, 2015) – Lock your medicine cabinet.
That was a piece of common-sense advice given by Major Richard Fiano of the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office and John Scherbensky of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) at the May 13th meeting of the Loudoun Education Alliance of Parents (LEAP).
While the surge in heroin use and related deaths has been big news recently, Fiano said the road to heroin use begins with the abuse of prescription drugs that are easily available to teens and others in their own (or a friend’s) medicine cabinet. Commonly prescribed (and over-prescribed) pain medications such as hydrocodone and oxycodone are, like heroin, members of the opioid family of drugs. All of these drugs produce morphine-like effects. As tolerance to the prescription drugs builds, or they become too expensive to buy, addicts turn to heroin as an alternative.
Scherbensky said there is a mistaken belief, especially among teens, that prescription drugs are safer because they come from a doctor not a drug dealer. He said users feel less shame because they’re not using an illicit drug purchased on the street. However, the addictive quality of these drugs can be devastating. Scherbensky said that, between 1999 and 2010, the abuse rate of prescription drugs among women had risen 400 percent with a 265 percent jump for men.
Scherbensky showed how a lot of pain medications make their way to the public. “Pain clinics” in Florida pay doctors up to $12,000 a week to do nothing but write prescriptions. The medications obtained with these prescriptions are then distributed up and down the East Coast.
Dealers also are recruiting Medicare and Medicaid recipients to fill prescriptions and are flooding pharmacies with false prescriptions. Fiano said the Sheriff’s Office is working with Loudoun’s 52 pharmacies to train employees how to spot fake prescriptions for drugs such as oxycodone.
The Sheriff’s Office has drug turn-in days when people can get unused, unwanted medications out of their homes; something both Fiano and Scherbensky suggest you should do. On the latest such day, 1,060 pounds of medications were turned in.
Fiano detailed where heroin enters this picture.
The price of a prescription pill on the street is about $30. The price of a small bag of heroin that will produce the same or greater effect is $10. Thus, heroin becomes the more cost-effective drug. (Scherbensky said 80 percent of heroin users have abused prescription drugs.)
Fiano, who has a long career in law enforcement (including a full career with the DEA) said the heroin being marketed today is much different from that he first saw in the 1970’s.
For one thing, it is far more potent.
Fentanyl is now being added to heroin as a cutting agent. Fentanyl is about 100 times more potent than morphine (heroin) as an analgesic. It produces respiratory depression, nausea and vomiting and is a primary cause of the recent surge in heroin overdoses. “The users don’t realize its fentanyl and how powerful it is,” said Fiano.
Today’s heroin also can be smoked or snorted and doesn’t have to be ingested through injection.
Fiano said the majority of heroin users in Loudoun make day trips to Washington, D.C., and Baltimore to buy the drug on the street. To combat these “day-trippers,” Fiano said the Sheriff’s Office is having road deputies make more stops of suspicious vehicles.
Fiano said the majority of heroin that comes into this area is manufactured in Mexico or Colombia. Mexico, which once produced primarily “black tar” heroin, is now producing the “white” heroin more commonly associated with Asian production.
Loudoun County had 31 heroin overdoses in 2014 with 11 fatalities. This year, there have been nine overdoses with two fatalities. Fiano said the average age of an overdose victim in Loudoun is 25. The overdose victims are overwhelmingly white (97 percent) and male (90 percent).
Scherbensky detailed the threat to teens posed by synthetic drugs. These drugs are available behind the counter in places such as convenience stores. The lure of these drugs is that they are not technically illegal – changing formulas constantly to remain so – and may not be detectable on drug tests.
However, Scherbensky said synthetic marijuana can produce effects similar to PCP and has caused death from a single use. “One time can be your last time.” He added synthetic drugs are totally unregulated and the user has no idea who made them.
The May 13th meeting was the last LEAP meeting for the 2014-2015 school year. The following slate of officers for 2015-2016 was elected at the meeting:
- President: Rennea Butler
- Vice President Communications: Phil Lo Presti
- Vice President Programs: Eileen Altenburger
- Treasurer: Juana Kazmierczak
- Secretary: Melissa Ganz
- Past President: Maura Walsh-Copeland
As a part of the May 13th meeting, Loudoun County Public Schools (LCPS) Project Manager Suyi Chuang polled LEAP delegates on the strategic goals of the Vision 20/20 process.