Just a few years ago, few could have ever imagined hosting two public forums on heroin use in Bracken County, the mostly rural county located along the Ohio River between Mason and Campbell counties. After all, at the time heroin was a drug problem in major cities like New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles but not in peaceful small towns like Brooksville and Augusta.
The fact that there will be town hall meeting on heroin at the Augusta Community Center on Monday evening and another at the Bracken County Extension Office in Brooksville on March 17 is a clear indication of just how serious the heroin problem is becoming in this region. It’s a problem that is likely to continue to increase as a direct result of the prescription pain pill epidemic that has gripped the Appalachian region for more than a decade, resulting in hundreds of deaths.
Four out of five new heroin users had previously abused pain pills, according to the 2012 National Survey on Drug Abuse and Health. Dr. Sally Satel, a practicing pyschiatrist and health policy expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, recently told syndicated columnist Clarence Page that “many users of prescription pain killers find they can get the same effects from heroin a lot cheaper.”
Because of its widespread abuse in this region, Oxycontin came to be derisively known as the “hillbilly heroin.” As the abuse of pain pills has declined in this region — thanks in large part of effective new laws — it seems that too many area residents have switched to just using heroin, in part because it is less expensive.
That’s not progress. It’s replacing one drug problem with another one. If anything, heroin may be more deadly than pain pills when abused.
“I believe there is not a family in Bracken County who has not been touched by heroin use in some way. That is how bad it is,” said Bracken County Sheriff Howard Niemeier. “Parents have to start believing it is out there, and a threat to their children or we will never get a handle on it.”
According to Van Ingram, director of the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy, statewide heroin overdose deaths increased by 650 percent last year.
Bracken County Coroner John Parker says he has seen heroin emerge as the cause of one death in the county this year, with previous drug-related deaths linked to prescription drug overdoses.
While perhaps not as extensive as it is in Bracken County, heroin use is increasing in Boyd, Greenup and Carter counties along with virtually every county in the eastern third of Kentucky.
The forums in Bracken County are sponsored by the Buffalo Trace Agency for Substance Abuse and will include speakers and panelists who are medical professionals, law enforcement officers, treatment providers and families who have been affected by drug addiction.
“Heroin is here. It’s time for community action,” says the brochure promoting the town forums. As a further incentive to get people to attend the meetings, they will offer a light meal and have door prizes.
Maybe the heroin problem in northeastern Kentucky is not yet as serious as it is in Bracken County, but there is little doubt that it is on the rise throughout this region. There may come when similar forums are necessary in Boyd, Greenup and Carter counties — and it may be sooner than we think.