Drug overdose deaths reach record in Mississippi

Then-Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics director Marshall Fisher, left, explains how the charts list reported drug overdose cases from each county, after a 2013 news conference on a new effort to educe prescription-drug abuse. The state Department of Public Safety and MBN set up 10 safe boxes at driver's license offices around Mississippi providing people a place they can drop off unneeded prescription drugs in the secure boxes, no questions asked.
Then-Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics director Marshall Fisher, left, explains how the charts list reported drug overdose cases from each county, after a 2013 news conference on a new effort to educe prescription-drug abuse. The state Department of Public Safety and MBN set up 10 safe boxes at driver's license offices around Mississippi providing people a place they can drop off unneeded prescription drugs in the secure boxes, no questions asked. AP File

Mississippi drug overdose deaths have reached a record high — boosted in part by heroin, sometimes laced with the even more dangerous fentanyl.

“Mississippi is emerging on the brink of a super pandemic,” said state Bureau of Narcotics Director John Dowdy.

In 2016, Mississippi saw at least 211 deaths from drug overdoses — the highest in state history.

Dowdy derived that number from death certificates. He suspects the real number is much higher as evidenced by drug tests, which would increase the deaths to 220 (with oxycodone detected in 45 deaths and fentanyl detected in 33 deaths).

But not every coroner uses the state Crime Lab, Dowdy said. The state Department of Health puts the number of drug poisoning deaths, excluding homicides and suicides, at 274.

Marshall Fisher said heroin had almost vanished from the landscape when he moved in 2003 to Mississippi to head the Drug Enforcement Administration office.

Fisher said the only heroin cases he saw then were when authorities busted cars heading for other places, such as Chicago and Atlanta.

In 2011, he began to witness a wave of overdoses involving opioids — a family of the often addictive painkillers derived from the morphine molecule, including morphine, fentanyl, oxycodone, hydrocodone and their illicit cousin, heroin.

Mississippi is one of a handful of states where there are more opioid prescriptions than there are people.

In fact, the state prescribes so many opioid painkillers that each man, woman and child could swallow a pill a day for 67 days without running out.

More Americans die each year of drug overdoses than died during the entire Vietnam War.

“It’s like two jumbo jets going down every week,” said Fisher, who now heads the state Department of Public Safety. “Would we accept that from the airline industry?”

Middle- or upper-class, Caucasian, private school, fraternity kids.

Kostas Matheos, who owns Bridge to Recovery in Ridgeland, says this is the profile of heroin addicts lately and they start out taking “a couple of pills”

To help stop what he calls a “scourge,” Gov. Phil Bryant has formed the Opioid and Heroin Study Task Force. Congress has approved $3.58 million to the state Department of Mental Health to aid in that fight.

Dowdy said many of those addicted to opioids are switching to heroin as a cheaper alternative, pointing out that seizures testing positive for heroin at the state Crime Lab were 67 in 2012 and are expected to top 400 this year, if the current trend continues.

“A prescription opioid costs $65 to $85 a pill on the street,” he said, “but a package of heroin may run only $10.”

One of the governor’s task force members, family practice physician Dr. Randy Easterling of Vicksburg, said he hardly saw a heroin addict years ago. Now he sees two or three a day.

But he believes there is an even more dangerous threat these days than heroin and that is fentanyl, which is 50 times stronger than the illicit drug. The prescription drug, sold in timed-release skin patches, is available only to cancer patients suffering from breakthrough pain.

Addicts abuse the patches by melting them, he said. “It’s a long-lasting opioid, so the effect on the body is erratic.”

Mexican cartels are now lacing heroin with fentanyl, in part because the painkiller is cheaper to produce than heroin, he said.

“The fentanyl is being made in China. You don’t know what you’re getting,” he said. “Then it’s being mixed with heroin that you don’t know where it’s from. People are dying.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that deaths from fentanyl have increased 75 percent over the past year. One of them was the music legend Prince.

A reporter holds up an example of the amount of fentanyl that can be deadly after a news conference June 6 about deaths from fentanyl exposure, at DEA Headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. Jacquelyn Martin AP File

Mirroring the nation

In Mississippi, Dowdy is working to keep heroin and fentanyl off the streets. “The $50 million question is, what are we going to do when we’re like an Ohio?” he asked.

Ohio leads the nation with thousands of opioid overdose deaths a year. One coroner’s office became so backed up with corpses it had to call up a local funeral home to hold the extra bodies.

Nationally, heroin deaths have surpassed gun homicides for the first time, according to the CDC.

In Mississippi, the number of people treated for heroin addiction has more than tripled over the past three years, going from 99 to 306, according to the state Department of Mental Health.

“We are mirroring the national trend,” Dowdy said.

In four years, heroin-related overdose deaths in Mississippi have skyrocketed from one in 2011 to 35 in 2015.

To combat overdoses, Mississippi lawmakers approved a bill that provided legal immunity to first responders who administer naloxone or similar drugs to reverse an overdose’s effects.

But the bill included no funding to provide responders with the drug, which retails for about $125 for two doses.

overdose graphic
CDC drug overdose deaths for 2015

Finding help

Southaven native Branden Cooper, 24, was addicted to heroin for years before finding recovery.

At age 8, a relative got him drunk, and a year later introduced him to marijuana. On his 11th birthday, that relative laid out lines of cocaine for his birthday.

He and his 12-year-old sister, Jessica, began using opioids and other drugs.

A few years later, he rode with his sister to buy 14 Xanax bars. He said the dealer had run out of most of them, but offered “something that’s just as good, and it’s a lot stronger.”

Mississippi is one of a handful of states where there are more opioid prescriptions than there are people.

That drug turned out to be heroin. “It was the first time for us to shoot heroin together,” Cooper said. “My sister and I fell in love with it the moment it entered our system.”

In that moment, he said, “it was like everything ceased — the pain, all the troubles we didn’t want to talk about, everything. We finally felt that moment of peace.”

From that time on, they pursued that promise of peace, but found none, bouncing in and out of hospitals, rehab centers and jails.

In 2015, he finally found sobriety, but his sister continued to struggle. On Dec. 1, just after returning to Mississippi following a stint in a Texas rehab, she overdosed on heroin.

Cooper thinks often about his sister as he works with recovering addicts at Turning Point recovery center in Southaven. He serves as alumni coordinator for Addiction Campuses.

For him, it is a way to try and save those like his sister, caught in the spiral of addiction.

“I tell those in the program to do the next right thing because there are more people who love you than you know,” he said. “That was what I didn’t know.”

Branden Cooper and his sister, Jessica, who died of a heroin overdose. Special to the Clarion-Ledger

Offering help

Jackson native Kostas Matheos started in the recovery field in 1999 in Santa Fe, where heroin was so out of control it was sold out of a white trailer with a drive-through window. Even fourth-graders were shooting up.

In 2006, she returned to her hometown and started the Bridge to Recovery in Ridgeland.

Now the same heroin she encountered at the start of her career is overwhelming clients.

“I’ve come back home to Mississippi, and now this is most of what I treat,” she said. “It all starts with Mom’s Lortabs or Dad’s Percocets in the cabinet.”

Many heroin addicts these days fit the same profile — “middle- or upper-class, Caucasian, private school, fraternity kids,” she said. “Initially, they take a couple of pills.”

They become hooked, she said, and when they are unable to get pills and feel “dope sick, that’s when they find heroin.”

In most overdoses she said she has seen lately, “the heroin has been laced with fentanyl.”

All this is coming at the time that governments are cutting funding for drug treatment, recovery and mental health, she said, adding the lone center in Jackson, where addicts could get off drugs, New Vision, closed recently.

“Here we are the capital of our state, and there’s nowhere for a person to be detoxed,” she said.

The other day, she started counting all the funerals she has attended of those who died at the hands of addiction, she said. “I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve been to more funerals over the past two years than the other 16 years combined.’”

New laws needed

Dowdy would like to see Mississippi adopt a law similar to a federal statute, which allows a life sentence for drug dealers when their drugs kill users.

Easterling, who serves on the state Board of Medical Licensure, would like for the oversight boards for doctors, dentists and nurse practitioners to unite on tougher standards for opioid prescriptions.

After Kentucky began requiring health care providers to check the prescription-monitoring program before prescribing opioids, the state saw significant drops in both opioid prescriptions and overdose deaths.

Fisher would like to see Mississippi physicians required to check as well.

“We must educate our citizens that all pain doesn’t need to be managed by opioids,” he said. “Tylenol and Advil work fine in many instances, according to physicians I talk with.”

There must be a shift in thinking, he said. “Insurance companies and Medicaid should consider treating people suffering from the disease of addiction as if it is any other disease.”

2017 Opioid and Heroin Drug Summit announced

Multiple government agencies and non-profit organizations have joined forces to hold the 2017 Opioid and Heroin Drug Summit from July 11-13 at Broadmoor Baptist Church in Madison. Invited to attend are parents, educators, policy makers, opinion leaders, stakeholders, journalists, physicians, pharmacists, counselors, law enforcement officers and members of the clergy.

The summit will be three days of education from peoplewho are leading the fight to combat the opioid and heroin epidemic. Among them are Sam Quinones, author of the book “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic;” Dr. Marv Seppala, Chief Medical Officer of the Hazledon Betty Ford Foundation; and Dr. Keith Berge of the Mayo Clinic.

The drug summit also will feature a family forum on the nights of July 11-12 and will include former Major League Baseball player Darryl Strawberry among others.

For more information, visit www.drugsummit.com.

Governor signs bills to curb opioid abuse in Louisiana

Obtaining prescriptions for highly addictive opioid drugs in Louisiana will soon be more difficult under bills signed into law Monday by Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, who is hoping to turn the state into a leader in battling the nationwide opioid epidemic.

Edwards signed three bills that had breezed through the Legislature during the recently concluded regular session. All three had been part of the Democratic governor’s agenda.

“There’s hope for anyone at risk of falling into addiction as well as those who are already struggling,” said Edwards, whose state has the nation’s sixth-highest opioid prescription rate. “We hear you and we’re acting.”

The measures include one that will require physicians to consult a statewide prescription monitoring system before prescribing opioid drugs to patients, some of whom may be “doctor-shopping.” The monitoring program already exists, but doctors had not previously been mandated to use it.

“Doctors need to think before they wield the pen,” said Dr. Karen DeSalvo, the former acting U.S. Assistant Secretary for Health, who supported the proposals.

Another bill, sponsored by New Orleans Rep. Helena Moreno will limit first-time prescriptions for acute pain to seven days, down from 30. The law does not apply to chronic conditions.

Edwards also signed a bill sponsored by Rep. Walt Leger of New Orleans to establish a task force that will study how to prevent opioid abuse.

Federal data shows there were 861 fatal drug overdoses in Louisiana in 2015, a 12.4 percent increase from the previous year.

Moreno’s and Leger’s bills go into effect Aug. 1. The prescription monitoring bill, sponsored by St. Martin Parish Sen. Fred Mills will take effect Jan. 1.

Associated Press