CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The number of West Virginians who have died from heroin-related overdoses has tripled over the past five years, while fatalities caused by prescription pain pills have declined for the first time since 2009.
Heroin overdose deaths jumped from 22 in 2007 to 67 in 2012, according to the latest available figures from the West Virginia Health Statistics Center.
Health advocates who monitor overdose rates say more West Virginians, like residents in neighboring states, are turning to heroin because it’s cheaper — and often more potent — than prescription painkillers.
West Virginia law enforcement’s crackdown on “pill mills” — cash-only pain clinics that prescribe excessive amounts of painkillers — also has led to more heroin abuse, said Delegate Don Perdue, who heads the House of Delegates Health Committee.
“They’re switching to heroin because they can’t get pills anymore, and they’re so expensive,” said Perdue, D-Wayne. “It’s sort of like an addict’s euthanasia. They’re switching to heroin and it’s killing them.”
Berkeley County had the highest number of heroin overdose deaths, with 36 residents dying between 2007 and 2012.
“Families are being decimated,” said Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, who serves as chaplain for the Berkeley and Jefferson county sheriff’s offices.
Unger said Berkeley County’s close proximity to Washington, D.C., and Baltimore has fueled a spike in heroin abuse.
“It’s become worse because the cost of heroin has been going down,” he said. “There’s been a flood of it into the market. Law enforcement is constantly fighting it.”
Cabell County had the second-highest number of heroin-related overdose deaths, with 26, followed by Monongalia County, with 15 over the past five years. Kanawha County ranked fourth with 13.
Between 2011 and 2012, heroin overdose deaths in West Virginia increased from 41 to 67, a 63 percent jump. The state’s 2013 overdose numbers aren’t expected to be released until later this year.
Perdue said drug dealers from Detroit are selling a purer, more potent form of heroin in Cabell County.
“Even the heroin user who’s been using for a long time, if you give him something a lot more potent, it will kill him,” Perdue said. “When they find someone who’s died of a heroin overdose, they often find them with a needle in their arm. That’s how immediate that lethal dose can be.”
While heroin overdoses escalated in West Virginia, total overdose deaths from all drugs dropped from 656 deaths in 2011 to 558 deaths in 2012. Even so, West Virginia’s drug overdose death rate remains the highest in the U.S.
Overdose deaths caused by an opiate painkiller called oxymorphone plunged from 181 to 72. Oxycodone-related deaths decreased from 223 to 182. Overdose deaths caused by the painkiller hydrocodone also declined from 171 deaths to 142 in one year.
“Our younger people are looking for a more vivid high,” Perdue said. “They’re looking for a change in reality that’s more vivid than what marijuana can bring and that maybe OxyContin [oxycodone] can bring. An injectable drug like heroin offers that.”
During the last days of the legislative session, the House of Delegates killed two bills that aimed to reduce the state’s number of drug overdose deaths.
The House Judiciary Committee would not take up a Senate bill that would have allowed police, firefighters and other emergency service personnel to administer naloxone, a drug that counters the effect of heroin and pain-pill overdoses.
The House also gutted a Senate bill that would have created a Good Samaritan Law to protect people from arrest and prosecution on drug possession charges when they call 911 to report a drug overdose. The House amended the bill so that only people who reported alcohol poisonings wouldn’t be prosecuted.
Reach Eric Eyre at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4869.