Bradenton concerns rise as heroin use multiplies

jdeleon@bradenton.comNovember 8, 2013 

MANATEE -- A local mother's worst nightmare became reality this year when she walked into her living room where her son was watching television. His chest was not moving.

She immediately began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and called 911, performing CPR until paramedics arrived.

Within 20 minutes her son was breathing, sitting up in a hospital bed and refusing treatment.

Her son is a heroin addict. Naloxone, which reverses the effects of an opiate overdose, saved his life -- this time.

The Manatee County High School teacher's son, now 22, began abusing drugs at the age of 14.

With the crackdown on pill mills, community concerns have risen over the possible re-emergence of heroin as a drug of choice in Manatee County. A recent string of heroin-related overdose deaths in Manatee County has many medical professionals increasingly concerned.

At Manatee Glens, officials at the addiction center have seen a significant increase in patients.

"What we have seen is an increase in heroin because the doctors are cracking down on prescribing pain medications," director Jessica Crosby said. "Heroin is actually cheaper than pain medications."

The spike in heroin use began about a year ago, and increased even more in recent months, according to Crosby.

"Most of the time, it is that they have started with pain medications and switched over to heroin," Crosby said.

Most of the center's patients have some sort of addiction to opiates, often a combination of pain pills and heroin. Crosby said many patients originally had medical reasons to be on pain medication, but soon begin to abuse them or seek alternative, cheaper ways to deal with the pain.

For the high school teacher, the battle against her son's heroin addiction has become an everyday challenge.

She requested to remain anonymous, because her son is at a fragile stage right now.

"I have gone through the tough love, the caring love," she said. "I have tried everything."

Over the years, this mother of three said she spent more than $30,000 on her son's treatment. Her son has been to rehab three times, incarcerated several times and even tried living in halfway houses.

At times he reached the point of being suicidal, she said, because he can't stand it all anymore.

"He has lost more friends in his life than I have, and I am 61 years old," she said.

The educator of 35 years says she doesn't know what the answer is, no longer having the money to seek treatment for her son and facing limited community resources.

"The hospitals are crying out, the parents are crying out," she said. "People need to become aware that there is a lot of suffering going on in their community -- and it not just the addicts, but the families."

Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Russell Vega said the community should be worried about heroin.

"We have seen an increase in deaths attributed to heroin," Vega said.

There were 524 drug-related deaths in 2012 in the 12th Judicial District, which includes Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties. That was a 14 percent decrease from 609 in 2011. But deaths caused by heroin increased from two to eight.

In the past week alone, there have been at least eight deaths as a result of 13 overdoses in Manatee County. Heroin was blamed for most of the deaths.

Vega believes the number of deaths associated with heroin by the end of 2013 may be similar to the 2012.

"Those numbers are still considerably low compared with prescription drugs," Vega said. "Relatively speaking, the prescription drug deaths have decreased."

Prescription drug deaths in the judicial district added up to 196 in 2012, a 13 percent decrease from 225 in 2011.

Other abused drugs also have officials worried.

Synthetic drugs are of increasing concern to Vega, in part because they are difficult to identify.

"I think we are seeing some deaths that could be attributed to them and that we are missing because that testing is difficult to do," Vega said. "The drugs are changing all the time."

Manatee Substance Abuse Coalition Executive Director Sharon Kramer said the increase in heroin use comes as no surprise.

"It's not showing up on our data yet, but we know it's happening," Kramer said. "When the prescription drugs became more difficult to get, heroin we thought is where they would turn."

The Manatee County Sheriff's office reports no increase in criminal charges related to heroin.

"Arrests associated with heroin are actually down," spokesman Dave Bristow said. "Cocaine and marijuana seem to still to be the drug of choice -- not to say that may not change soon."

Arrests related to heroin in the first six months of 2013 came to 428, down 11 percent from 483 in the first six months of 2012.

Jessica De Leon, law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter @JDeLeon1012.

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