This story was written by Cassandra Day and originally appeared in the Middletown Press.
MIDDLETOWN >> The opioid epidemic is so pervasive and the purity levels of heroin coming from Mexico are so much higher than even a decade ago that state, local and federal officials are turning to the public to spread the word about getting unused prescription pills out of homes and off the streets.
U.S. Attorney Deirdre Daly, the Drug Enforcement Agency Assistant Special Agent in Charge Brian Boyle, Connecticut State Police Col. Alaric Fox, Middletown Police Chief William McKenna and others spoke Tuesday afternoon at Middletown police headquarters about the upcoming drug take-back day, a national initiative they say is the first line of defense against preventing access to these gateway drugs.
Prescription drug take-back day will be held Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at many locations throughout Connecticut.
“Since the beginning of 2016, as part of this initiative, the DEA has conducted 120 investigations and the U.S. Attorney’s Office has prosecuted 60 individuals,” Daly said. “We recognize that investigating cases alone is not sufficient,” she said, adding that awareness and prevention are equally vital.
In the last year, Daly said, the U.S. Attorney’s Office Heroin Action Education Team has reached out to 15,000 high and middle school students through its opioid awareness presentations.
In 2016, she said, 917 people in Connecticut died from an overdose, many of them between the ages of 18 and 26. “Many are new heroin users. Four out of five new opioid users start with a prescription opioid and 75 percent people now using or abusing prescription opioids do not have a prescription,” Daly said.
And once people get their hands on an unused prescription in the medicine cabinet of a friend, family member or neighbor, they can become addicted to high-inducing prescription painkillers like oxycodone. When that supply runs out, getting another fix is expensive — as much as $10 a dose on the streets, Daly said.
A bag of heroin costs $3, Daley said, which is why so many turn to these highly potent and illegal drugs.
In all, 6.4 million individuals age 12 and over, or 2.4 percent of the population, abuse prescription drugs, according to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health released last fall.
Fentanyl, a synthetic painkiller commonly used to cut heroin, has become the biggest challenge to health and public safety, said Boyle, from the DEA.
Fentanyl is up to 50 times more powerful than heroin.
“It threatens our communities, our families and children. Opioid addiction does not discriminate. It affects people from all walks of life. It is not limited to a certain demographic or geographical area,” he said.
Mexico is the primary source of these opioids, said Boyle, and production has increased tenfold. “We were seeing heroin back 10 years ago that would be 3 to 5 percent on the street level. We’re now seeing upwards of 40 to 50 and up to 70 or 80 percent.
“They’ve learned to grow it better, produce it better so the quality is much greater and that’s what attributes to a lot of the overdoses,” Boyle said. “One day, a user might go to the street and obtain a bag that has 2 percent heroin and he could go back next day same location and it could be upwards of 50, 60 percent.”
Last year, the DEA collected over 15,000 pounds of prescriptions, Boyle said.
Fox, the State Police colonel, said the scourge of drug addiction is not one with simple solutions.
“There are many aspects and moving parts in our response to an epidemic like the one we face. While it can be overwhelming to consider the scope of this problem, our progress can be traced one story at a time, one person at a time and one victim at a time,” Fox said.
McKenna said that last year in Middletown, overdose deaths were in the single digits. “We’re on par to double if not triple it. We believe overdoses are highly underreported due to HIPAA (privacy) laws at hospitals, so we can only comment on the number of cases our officers are actually called to,” he said.
Opioid abuse far surpasses the number of those who abuse cocaine, heroin, hallucinogens and methamphetamine combined, according to the DEA. “Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of injury-related death in the United States, eclipsing deaths from motor vehicle crashes or firearms,” the website states.
Middletown Lt. Heather Desmond said the drop-off is done anonymously. “People peel the labels off the bottles and they don’t even need to do that,” she said. “Once we’re done at 2 o’clock, the officers box everything up and drive down to the incinerator.”
“It’s amazing, some people bring in shopping bags full,” of painkillers, including morphine, said Middletown Officer Anthony Knapp. “We really don’t inspect them. We’re just happy to take them off the streets.”
Prescription drug take-back day will be held Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the following Middlesex County locations:
• Middletown Police Department, 222 Main St., rear door drop-off area
• Cromwell Police Department, 5 West St.
• Middlefield Resident Trooper’s office, 405 Main St.
• Durham Resident Trooper’s office, 24 Town House Road
• East Hampton Police Department, 20 E. High St.
Individuals can find a nearby collection site by visiting dea.gov and clicking on the “Take-Back Site Locations” link.