By James Lomuscio
Westport has not escaped the surge in heroin and other opiate overdoses in Connecticut.
Heroin overdose deaths have soared in Connecticut and nationally. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Contributed graphic
While no deaths have been reported in Westport, the state’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner said this week the number of people in Connecticut dying from drug overdoses continued to skyrocket in 2015.
More than 720 people overdosed, with heroin-related deaths climbing at alarming rates, the office said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, of the nationwide 47,055 drug-overdose deaths in 2014 — an all-time high, and more people than died of liver disease or renal failure, of suicide, or in car accidents — heroin was responsible for over one-fifth.
In Westport, some deaths may have been prevented by use of naloxone, more commonly known by its brand name, Narcan.
It was administered 15 times in Westport in the past year to bring back a user from the brink of dying from an overdose, said Westport Police Lt. David Farrell.
He said the pharmaceutical antidote was used in incidents in homes, the town’s homeless shelter, and even a medical facility.
Police, abuse counselors, and others dealing with the problems in Westport say most at risk are 18- to 25-year-olds.
Basil Hero: “suburban areas targeted.” Dave Matlow/WN photo
“The dealers have specifically targeted suburban areas, and the spring boards, the gateway, have been opioids and the abuse of them,” said Basil Hero, executive director of Positive Directions, a Westport-based rehabilitation center.
“All painkillers that doctors have been subscribing have led to this epidemic.”
Westport Police Chief Dale Call agrees, saying his department is seeing more incidents of prescription drug abuse. Many of them are the result of traffic stops that lead to arrests for oxycontin possession.
“From my experience we have a bigger problem with prescription drugs, but heroin is definitely in town,” said Call. “Do we have a dealer problem in town? No, most people go out of town to buy, not that people don’t come into town to sell.”
Police Chief Dale Call: prescription drugs biggest problem. Dave Matlow/WN photo
Police blotter checks occasionally show the arrests of out-of-town residents caught with multiple packages or folds of heroin with the intent to sell.
According to Westport Deputy Police Chief Foti Koskinas, “The needles are still out there, but because the drug has become more potent, it’s being administered in a different way, by smoking or snorting.”
While the new delivery systems eliminate deaths by air embolisms or HIV transmissions via needles, the new risk is that today’s heroin is being laced with the sedative fentanyl,” which is used by veterinarians as a sedative,” said Koskinas.
According to Positive Directions, heroin cut with fentanyl is marketed to addicts as a stronger, increased high.
The problem is that it leads to respiratory failure, such as in the case of a young man who died in the restroom of a Trumbull Starbucks last month who stopped breathing.
To combat overdoses, a number of legislative steps have been taken, including a 2011 state law that prevents someone who has overdosed from being arrested in the event that first responders are called.
According to Call, the reasoning for the 911 Good Samaritan Fatal Overdose Prevention Law is so that people will not, for fear of being arrested, hesitate to call first responders when the person shows signs of overdosing.
Statewide, the situation has reached crisis mode, to hear U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal tell it. He recently convened a meeting in New Britain to address the issue.
He said the rise in addiction rates and death is connected not only with the availability of illegal drugs, but the proliferation of opiate prescriptions that are over prescribed, leaving to addiction.
Increased addiction is also due to a change in delivery methods for heroin, say experts.
“What’s changed is that the people are no longer mainlining; what they are doing is snorting it or smoking it,” said Hero of Positive Directions.
So too has the cost, with bags, or folds, of heroin selling for $5 to $10 on the street, considerably less than prescription opiates, even less than a pack of cigarettes or a six-pack of beer.
Particularly vulnerable to getting opiate addicted, says Hero, are high school athletes who get an injury, “a break of some sort, and they’re prescribed and they get hooked on opioids, and they have the same chemical compound as heroin.”
Hero said the problems dates back to the 1990s when pain management received a renewed focus in medical schools.
“That was a big part of medical management, to ease the pain for their patients,” he said.
“They were given new mandates to prescribe pain medication for everything from root canal to sports injury, so they became much more liberal and ready to prescribe these painkillers.”
Meanwhile, the prescription gateway to heroin, plus the nonneedle delivery systems, have removed the stigma of “junkie,” a cultural deterrent decades earlier, exacerbating the problem, according to data from Positive Directions.
“The problem is that for certain people, their brain chemistry is such they are more hardwired for addiction,” Hero added.
Neighboring towns, too, have been affected. This past summer a 22-year-old Weston man died in a heroin and cocaine overdose at the University of Pittsburgh.
Weston was also where remains of Jeffrey and Jeanette Navin were found outside an unoccupied home in late October—murders in which police say heroin addiction likely played a role.
The Easton couple, the owners of Westport-based J&J Refuse, had been missing since early August.
According to State Police, their son Kyle, a 27-year-old heroin addict, had murdered them. They said he, arrested along with his girlfriend Jennifer Valiante, 31 of Westport, had used up to $600 worth of heroin a day.
Youngsters as young as 12 have been found to be using opiates, according to Simon Ovanessian, chief medical officer at Liberation Program, a Norwalk recovery agency.
He spoke earlier this month at a Kiwanis meeting in the parish hall at Weston’s Norfield Congregational Church. He told a rapt audience of about 100 persons, some from Westport, that opioid and heroin addiction has cut a swath through suburbia.
“I’m focused on the youth,” said Ovanessian, a professor of psychiatry and neurology at New York Medical College in Valhalla, N.Y. He said there was enough blame for the opiate use increase to go around.
Those responsible range from doctors who over prescribe oxycontin and other gateway opiates to parents not paying attention to their children, he said.
Also to blame is an instant gratification culture discouraging young people from finding healthier ways to cope, as previous generations did, Ovanessian said.
After he spoke, Weston First Selectwoman Nina Daniel said she learned at a recent meeting of the Western Connecticut Council of Governments that “heroin is coming in directly from Mexico with ships docking in Bridgeport.”
The drugs are being traded for guns to be used by cartels as the ships return, she said, and the “heroin supply is going all the way up to Maine.”
“In Maine, they’re calling it the Connecticut problem,” Daniel said.
“That’s the scary news,” she added.
Scarier still, said Tee Doonan of Trumbull, is that until recently the problem has been underreported, yet “Connecticut is in a crisis mode.”
Doonan, who was at the Weston meeting, said her son died from an overdose two years ago. She is now a member of the drug awareness group HeroinKillsCT.
Gary Mendell of Easton is another parent whose life has changed as a result of a drug tragedy. His 25-year-old son Brian died of an overdose in 2011.
Mendell said he was haunted by the tragedy so much that he left his job as a co-owner in HEI Hotels & Resorts to start Shatterproof, a Norwalk-based national recovery program.
“I was haunted wondering how many other families were affected by this disease, and it is a disease,” Mendell said.
He said that for every other disease, from cancer to heart disease to multiple sclerosis, there were national organizations and foundations, “but there was no such national organization for addiction.”
He said that Brian had battled with addiction with a number of drugs, “but the main thing was Vicodin.”
“What’s happened in this country is that the amount of prescription pain killers has gone up four times over the past 15 years, and the number of people who die from them have gone up five times,” Mendell said.
He added that with heroin addiction, “four out of five times it started with a prescription drug.”
Mendell said that in 85 percent of the cases in which doctors prescribe prescription drugs, “They do not look at a person’s prescription history.”
To that end he said Shatterproof has pushed for legislation nationally to require doctors to examine a person’s prescription history before giving out scripts for opiates.
Mendell said that he had also pushed for the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to issue guidelines for doctors prescribing opiates for chronic pain.
“We’re advocates for the CDC guidelines to be issued quickly and to be released without them being weakened,” he said.