Last month, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared heroin use a national public health crisis. Connecticut, like much of the rest of country, is grappling with an alarming rise in heroin and opiate painkiller addiction and overdose.
According to the Office of the State Medical Examiner, 307 people died in Connecticut last year alone due to opiate overdose.
On the street, heroin is believed to be cheaper, stronger, and more abundant than prescription opiate painkillers like Vicodin or Oxycontin, making it easy for people who are addicted to painkillers to transition to heroin. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Data Archive, four out of five heroin users previously abused painkillers.
That transition from painkillers to heroin also means heroin is no longer limited to geographic, economic and racial boundaries.
"Seventy percent of the folks who overdosed were male. Eighty percent were white, with a mean age of 40 years old, and over 80 percent of those deaths occurred in a residence," said Shawn Lang, Deputy Director of Programs and Policy for Aids Connecticut, who oversees the Connecticut Opiate Overdose Workgroup. "And it occurred in all but 17 of our 169 towns and cities."
Listen to Lang below:
So, is 2015 gearing up to be another record year for overdose deaths?
"We are looking at the data for 2015, and we anticipate it might be around the same [number of overdose deaths as 2014] maybe a little bit more, but we don't know yet," said Dr. Miriam Delphin-Rittmon, commissioner of the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. "We are hoping, with the range of interventions we have going on statewide -- including the wider availability of Narcan -- we are hoping those numbers will begin to decrease."
Listen below to Dephin-Rittmon:
Narcan is the brand name for naloxone, a drug the quickly reverses the effects of an opiate overdose.
The drug is administered through the nose, and is proven to save lives.
"It is a life saving medication. You can do no harm, there are virtually no side effects to it," said Lang. "The only thing it does is bring somebody immediately out of an opiate overdose."
In 2014, Connecticut expanded the state's Good Samaritan law to allow first responders, treatment counselors, and concerned family members access to naloxone.
Connecticut State Police started carrying the drug last October, and so far have reversed 33 overdoses.
In June, Governor Dannel Malloy signed into law a bill that gives pharmacists who are trained and certified the ability to prescribe and distribute naloxone to anyone, like parents who know or may suspect their child is abusing opiates.
"There is still a tremendous amount of judgement and stigma around heroin use, and family members are often embarrassed to even go their family doctor and talk about that and get a prescription for naloxone," said Lang. "This is going to demolish that barrier."
The new law also strengthens the state's Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, which checks a patient's history to see if they might be obtaining opiate painkillers from multiple doctors or pharmacists.