BIRMINGHAM, Alabama - Heroin use and abuse took its toll on Jefferson County in 2012, killing nearly five dozen people and contributing to death for a handful of others.
Accidental overdose from the euphoric drug directly killed 57 people last year, according to figures released by the Jefferson County Coroner's Office to Al.com. Heroin was a contributing factor in five other deaths in 2012.
The numbers are unlike anything authorities have seen in heroin-related deaths in recent history. They are nearly double the 2011 tally - 30- and drastically up from the years before that, which saw 18 deaths in 2009 and 12 in 2010. In April 2012 alone, there were 13 fatalities from heroin.
Efforts to immediately obtain a total from Shelby County were unsuccessful, but authorities there have said heroin cases have tripled in the past several years and deaths have increased each year since 2009, with the exception of 2010. At least 15 people died in Shelby County from heroin last year.
"We've seen a huge transition back to heroin after it had sort of disappeared for a while It's difficult to say why exactly, but as prescription pills become more expensive, addicts are starting to purchase heroin,'' said Birmingham police Chief A.C. Roper. "Unfortunately, so many have limited or no experience with it, so we're now seeing more heroin deaths across the nation."
Nationwide, there has been a steady increase in the number of heroin-involved deaths. The Center for Disease Control reported 3,278 heroin deaths in 2009, the most recent year for which statistics are available. That is nearly double the 1,725 heroin deaths reported a decade earlier, in 1999.
"What we are seeing now is more potent, more lethal and it is taking lives." Chief Deputy Randy Christian
The national numbers started to decline, but then started to climb in the mid-2000s, with 1,839 in 2005, 1,869 in 2006, 2,137 in 2007, and 2,775 in 2008.
Few Jefferson County communities are untouched by the deadly drug. Of the 57 deaths, 23 were in Birmingham and 15 in unincorporated Jefferson County. The other breakdowns are: Bessemer, 3; Hoover, 3; Trussville, 2; Gardendale, 2; Vestavia Hills, 2; Adamsville, 2; Hueytown, 2 and one each in Brookside, Irondale and Pleasant Grove. One of the Birmingham cases was investigated by UAB police.
Of the five cases where heroin was involved but not the factor that caused the death, four were in Birmingham and one in unincorporated Jefferson County. Some of those, officials say, were traffic crash deaths.
Coroner's statistics show the 2012 heroin deaths were overwhelmingly white and male, with 86 percent of the victims being white and 74 percent men. Just five of the victims, 9 percent, were black. Another three -- 5 percent -- were Hispanic. The median age of the victims was 32.
Those extensive toxicology testing was done on the victims, in many cases the use of heroin was apparent. A 38-year-old McCalla man was found dead in a motel room, a syringe next to his arm. A 30-year-old Hoover man was found dead crouching in front of the toilet at his home, a syringe on the sink countertop and another in the soap dish. A 24-year-old Trussville man was found dead in a kneeling position, also in front of the toilet. A syringe was underneath, and drugs found nearby.
The scenario is the same in many of the cases, and authorities remain concerned at the scenes they find. Authorities blame the rising death rate on an increase in availability, the level of purity of the drug, the constant effort by users of all descriptions to recreate yesterday's high and their naivete in doing so.
"What we are seeing now is more potent, more lethal and it is taking lives,'' said Jefferson County sheriff's Chief Deputy Randy Christian." These drug dealers are in it for the money and couldn't care less and likely have no clue what a safe dose may be. The users need a new high because they have become tolerant of what they have been using and they think they can handle it. The number of deaths say otherwise."
Published: January 25, 2013 at 3:45 PM
Updated: January 25, 2013 at 5:24 PM
Reported by: Carol Robinson