BIRMINGHAM, Alabama - There has been an increase in the last few years of heroin use, say several experts who were present at a panel in the Junior League of Birmingham building as part of the organization's final Community Roundtable discussion for the year.
The panelists at the discussion were: DEA Special Agent in Charge Clay Morris, U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance and Danny Molloy, a peer counselor recognized by the Alabama Department of Mental Health.
The original panel was three speakers but a fourth was added: Pete Lane, who is an assistant medical professor at UAB.
The discussion was started with a PowerPoint presentation by Morris, who showed the audience of more than 50 attendants the number of deaths in Jefferson and Shelby counties and in Tuscaloosa that were attributed to heroin overdoses in 2012 and 2013.
Morris said that the number of overdose deaths in Birmingham has risen by 450 percent in two years.
"One thing that the statistics bear out is that it does not matter if you are from a wealthy community or a poor community, if you're black, if you're white, if you're well educated or uneducated, heroin is eating away at your children," Vance said.
Other graphics in the presentation included pictures of opium plants and the process of converting opium seeds to heroin. One picture showed the "cleaning process" of a particular type called brown powder heroin from Mexico and what Morris said was "exclusively" found being sold and used in Birmingham.
Others showed the trade routes taken by drug traffickers in places where opium plants are grown, including Mexico, South America, the Golden Crescent, Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan.
Morris said that trends in heroin use have undergone changes over the years in regards to how it is taken by users. Ways to take heroin include snorting, injecting and smoking but Morris said that cases of heroin use and overdoses in Birmingham have been through injection from needles.
"There's always been a social stigma with using injection as a source to get their drugs," he said. "But that has changed. The overdoses, deaths, victims in our area exclusively inject their heroin. Everything in heroin distribution has changed."
Morris also pointed out the purity levels of the drug found in Birmingham, which can be as high as 98 percent, making it much more potent and much more dangerous. New users are especially at risk of overdose because their bodies may not be able to handle higher levels of purity.
The panelists said that prescription pills are causing much of the increases in addiction, which is taking place among middle to upper class citizens who are starting with opiate-based medications such as Oxycodone and Hydrocodone used to treat pain.
Molloy, who is a recovering drug addict and member of the Addiction Prevention Coalition, said that he had started with opiate-based prescription pills before moving on to illegal drugs. He began recovery after years of addiction and after witnessing an overdose once. He said that his cousin in Boston, MA died of heroin overdose.
"We have a huge issue," he said. "And there's so much shame involving addiction that nobody's saying anything. The language has changed so much since the '60s and '70s and the problem has become so widespread that we have to change our language in fighting it."
Addiction is not something that happens overnight, said Lane, who directs an addiction recovery program at UAB. Lane said that around 65 percent of pill abusers get prescription drugs from family and friends, with some addicts beginning at 12 years old.
"In any high school and any middle school you can get any drug that's on the street and you can probably get some drugs that are not on the street," he said. "Your kids will go to your medicine cabinet and take whatever drugs they got. Your kid might have a friend that will invite himself over and rifle through the cabinet."
The panel also addressed the influence of popular culture on drug use. Molloy said that some in entertainment are influencing potential users in taking up heroin and other drugs. Vance said that the internet has been responsible for "glamorizing" the use of heroin with some sites that advocate its use and provide directions in taking the drug.
"One of the issues we face is due to the internet and the romanticizing and glamorizing of heroin use and the entire heroin chic in the media and the internet," Vance said.
What can be done about this? Lane stressed "vigilance" to parents in watching what kids do and who they keep company with, as well as getting treatment for those who have become addicts.
"There is not one thing you can do to fix this problem," he said. "It's going to be the little things we can do to fix this problem. Law enforcement needs to keep doing what they're doing. We need to keep doing what we're doing in treating this problem. The one thing that you can do with your kids is vigilance."
Vance said that prevention education is one way to deal with it. She also said that putting more people in jail will not solve the problem, citing a law enforcement official who said, "We can't arrest our way out of this." In a similar statement, Molloy said the community must do its part.
"Really, what needs to happen is that we don't need more police," Molloy said. "The police are doing all they can. They're facing an issue that they don't have the numbers to fight. We need the community to step up and do something. We need people to say 'I want to get involved. I want to help fight this.'"
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on May 03, 2014 at 3:04 PM, updated May 03, 2014 at 3:33 PM