BIRMINGHAM, Alabama - More than 150 people have died of heroin overdoses across the Birmingham area in the last 2 ½ years, from Birmingham to Mountain Brook and almost every affluent suburb surrounding the city.
And it has to stop, said U.S. Attorney Joyce Vance, who has called for a community summit to address the issues of opiates and heroin addiction that leads to the deaths. "I've said this before, if we had 100 carjacking deaths in that period of time where we saw 100 overdoses, everybody would have been jumping on it,'' Vance said.
But they have died with little notice. At least 58 people died in Jefferson County in each of the last two years, according to numbers from the Jefferson County Coroner's Office. This year, the metro has already recorded 36, and is on pace to surpass the totals of previous years.
The issue isn't unique to Jefferson County. Both Shelby and Tuscaloosa counties have seen spikes as well, as have communities nationwide. "When Birmingham police go out into these areas where there is high violent crime, they're falling all over heroin,'' Vance said. "It is also in Gardendale, Fultondale, Vestavia, Mountain Brook, Hoover and at the University of Alabama."
"It has become a ubiquitous drug, which I think is incredibly difficult for us to understand, to believe, because of what we associated it with,'' Vance said.
A community summit is set to be held June 10 at the UAB National Alumni Society House. The day-long conference is a joint effort between Vance's office, UAB's School of Public Health and the Jefferson County Department of Public Health. U.S. Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole will deliver the keynote address. The conference is free, and open to anyone who wants to take part, including parents, pastors, teachers and employers. Organizers have planned for 200 participants.
"One important thing is the community needs to understand the path to heroin addiction. My impression was it was some sort of crazed musician who lets himself go and ends up in dire straits," Vance said. "The reality is it is middle-aged suburban moms who have had some sort of injury and get an Oxycontin prescription and by the time the prescription ends, they're addicted."
"At some point they can no longer get the pills legally and they start buying them illegally,'' Vance said. "Then, at some point, heroin becomes a more affordable, palatable alternative."
Vance and other law enforcement and health officials first started noticing the trend several years ago. Former Medical Examiner Dr. Robert Brissie, who has since died, and Vance had multiple conversations about the heroin resurgence. "It was obvious that as unthinkable as it was when we started looking at this in 2011, there was a bad problem with heroin and nobody thought that was the case,'' Vance said. "Heroin? That's a '60s drug. I heard that a lot."
In May 2012, AL.com and The Birmingham News first highlighted the growing problem in Jefferson County. From January through April that year, the coroner's office logged 23 deaths; 21 of those from heroin overdoses and two others in which heroin contributed. In April 2012 alone, there were 13 heroin-related fatalities.
The 58 deaths in 2012 were unlike anything authorities had seen in heroin-related deaths in recent history. They nearly doubled the 2011 tally of 30 and were drastically up from the years before that, which saw 18 deaths in 2009 and 12 in 2010.
Of the 36 Jefferson County deaths so far this year, 14 were in Birmingham, eight in unincorporated Jefferson County, three in Homewood and Hoover, two in Bessemer and one each in Mountain Brook, Fultondale, Trussville, Vestavia Hills, Irondale and Hueytown.
Over the past three years, the average age of heroin-related deaths in Jefferson County was 36. Of the victims, 88 percent were white.
In Shelby County, 45 people have died from heroin-related overdoses since 2009, according to the Shelby County Coroner's Office. So far this year, there have been two confirmed deaths there and a third pending toxicology test results. There were seven in 2013, 16 in 2012, 10 in 2011, 2 in 2010 and eight in 2009.
From 2012 through May 2014, the Shelby County victims included 24 white males, one white female and one Hispanic male. Their ages ranged from 18 to 52.
Tuscaloosa had six heroin-related deaths in 2013, five in 2012 and four in 2011, said Lt. Kip Hart, the assistant commander of the Tuscaloosa County Metro Homicide Unit. They are still awaiting toxicology test results on possible 2014 deaths. In the 2013 deaths, the victims were five white males and one white female, all between the ages of 20-34.
Availability and purity are partly to blame for the increase in numbers. "These are 'needle-in-the-arm deaths. You don't shoot heroin and then die three days later. You shoot up and you die right then," Vance said. "The purity is so high, and it's inconsistent."
In late May 2012, federal, state and local law-enforcement officials met at the U.S. Attorney's Office. "We just sort of laid out all of the statistics and people knew in their hearts they hadn't put all the pieces together,'' Vance said. "It was real clear there was a problem."
Vance said they launched a significant, sustained law enforcement effort. The Heroin Initiative, she said, was designed to interdict some of the heroin being sold on the streets and also to identify where it was coming from so they could stop the supply at a more local level. Part of those efforts led to heroin trafficking charges against 49 people in North Alabama. The DEA, FBI, U.S. Marshals Serve, ATF and local law enforcement officers took part in that roundup.
But, Vance said, "At some point you have to understand that, as in many law enforcement issues, you cannot arrest your way out of a problem. You have to also have community education."
Education, and action, is what Vance hopes will come from the June 10 summit. "The important thing we do here is convene the right group of people and give them the information we need to attack the problem,'' she said.
Speakers and panel discussions will address topics including the link between a growing dependency on prescription painkillers and heroin addiction and overdose deaths; law enforcement efforts to combat the problem; challenges and availability of prevention and treatment resources; and school intervention and education efforts to combat use and addiction.
The summit will conclude with a discussion and audience input on developing and implementing a community action plan to address what Vance said is dangerous and deadly epidemic. "We have to cut off access to this stuff and we have to educate people about it,'' she said. "The bottom line is, this is a public health crisis."
For more information on the conference, contact Lyndon J. Laster at 205-244-2092 or via email at Lyndon.firstname.lastname@example.org. The registration form can be found here.
By Carol Robinson | email@example.com The Birmingham News
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on May 30, 2014 at 12:19 PM, updated May 30, 2014 at 2:58 PM