HEROIN: It's reaching epidemic stages in Northern Kentucky
Saturday, March 08, 2014 4:00 AM
Charlotte Wethington thought she knew quite a lot about kids and the issues they faced outside of the classroom. After all, she was an elementary school teacher in Kenton County, Ky. for nearly 30 years.
Heroin often comes into the U.S. through foreign drug trades. Officials with the NKY Heroin Impact Response Team have identified paths for drug trafficking from Mexico to Chicago and Detroit. Drug dealers from Chicago and Detroit bring heroin into Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky before transporting the drug down Interstate 71 to rural areas throughout the region.
Yet she didn't know her son, Casey, had several risk factors that could have indicated he might become addicted to drugs.
She didn't know that she would lose her son to a heroin overdose in 2002. She didn't know that she would eventually become a recovery advocate and share her son's story with thousands throughout the tri-state area.
"I thought I knew a lot of things," Wethington said. "But not about addiction."
Wethington remembers her son was a bit of a risk taker, always going to the edge but never over it. Casey had genetic factors from both sides of his family that pointed toward possible addiction. Drugs also were readily available in Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati.
"I want you to know Casey was a good person who made a bad choice," she said during an event to discuss heroin in Carrollton on Thursday night.
The family faced several obstacles even after they realized Casey had a problem with heroin. Treatment centers had long waitlists, and even then, the Wethingtons couldn't force their adult son to stay in or seek treatment.
Wethington had hoped a judge would order Casey into treatment after a drug-related arrest, but she was told that wasn't how it worked.
Casey overdosed for a third time and died at University Hospital in Cincinnati.
"I waited, and I waited too long," she said. "By the time we were able to make decisions, it was too late for Casey."
Determined to make a difference for others struggling with addiction, Wethington decided to fight for changes to Kentucky's laws. She wanted to make it easier for families to intervene when they know a loved one is addicted.
"If you think there is something wrong, there probably is," Wethington said.
The Matthew Casey Wethington Act for Substance Abuse Intervention became law in 2004, nearly two years after Casey's death. The Kentucky law - known as Casey's Law - allows families, relatives and friends to petition courts for involuntary treatment for an addict.
'We're dealing with a disease'
Casey's Law serves as just one way Kentucky hopes to use to curb the heroin epidemic sweeping the northern part of the state over the last several years. Officials throughout the eight-county Northern Kentucky region also hope a plan outlined late last year will reduce substance abuse and the use of heroin.
Nearly 140 community members, law enforcement officers and government officials attended a meeting in Carrollton on Thursday night where leaders of the NKY Heroin Impact Response Team and recovery advocates spoke of drug issues and the impact heroin has on communities.
According to the Northern Kentucky's Collective Response to the Heroin Epidemic - a document which was unveiled in November 2013 - heroin use had been increasing since the early 2000s before widespread and rapid growth began in 2010.
But heroin was in the area before that.
Ashel Kruetzkamp, an emergency room nurse with St. Elizabeth Hospital, has worked in the medical field for 18 years. She remembered very few cases of heroin overdoses when she first began her career. How to treat a heroin overdose wasn't even a big part of her education or training, she said.
Yet it's become routine to see about 45 to 50 overdoses per month anymore, she said. A lot of the overdoses stem from a person not knowing what makes up the drug.
"You're not sure what you're getting with heroin," she said.
Dr. Mike Kalfas, who spent nearly 15 years as a primary care physician and medical director of an alcohol and drug treatment center, saw much of the same thing. He said the heroin issues first began with one or two cases.
But soon the problem festered and then rapidly grew with several cases each day, he said.
"I watched heroin come in to Northern Kentucky and I watched it grow," Kalfas said, but it took doctors quite a while to understand how to treat the problem.
Doctors often waited for patients to hit "rock bottom" or decide there was a problem at the onset of the heroin epidemic, Kalfas said. Medical professionals soon found out the "rock bottom" for the addiction was often death by overdose.
After a while, physicians began to treat heroin addiction for what it was - a disease.
Doctors began to look to residential treatment centers as a way to deal with the opiate addictions, but months-long waiting lists caused many to go without treatment.
"I don't think it should be a felony to be addicted," Kalfas said. "We need more treatment beds, not jail cells."
Finding the funding
Northern Kentucky officials know the epidemic is more than what they are equipped to handle. Officials have taken their pleas to the Kentucky legislature, but even more help is going to be needed to curb the heroin issues throughout Northern Kentucky.
More than 100 state and regional officials gathered in Florence on Friday during a meeting with U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, where officials told the Republican senator about the epidemic.
"We already have a collective response, but this is just the beginning," Boone County Judge-Executive Gary Moore said, noting it will take time - and money - to reverse the problem.
McConnell heard testimony from 10 panelists including law enforcement, federal and state attorneys and healthcare officials about how severe the heroin issues have become in what McConnell called the epicenter of the state's epicenter for the heroin epidemic.
In one year, the number of heroin overdose deaths doubled from 33 in 2011 to 66 in 2012, McConnell said.
"That's a statistic we can't tolerate and won't tolerate," McConnell said.
Kentucky Senator Katie Stine, R-Southgate, said states usually want to be left alone by the federal government, but not in this case.
"We want the federal government's help here," Stine said.
Even though the federal government has finite resources, McConnell said he planned to take the information he gathered back to Washington, D.C. where he hoped to find some federal funding.
Chief attorney Kerry Harvey with the U.S. Attorney's Office said a large amount of the heroin brought to the area comes through the Detroit area through "drug mules." Years ago, these dealers would ride a bus into the area and leave soon after selling their drugs.
Now that's changing.
"We've noticed over the past year or so, these mules have bought (property)," Harvey said.
The influx of drug dealers living in the area has started to impact the quality of life for communities other than harming drug users, Commonwealth's attorney Rob Sanders said.
The region has seen an increase in murders because of drug wars and more people have turned to prostitution to buy drugs.
"This problem is coming to the rest of the Commonwealth," Sanders said. "It's going to have deadly consequences."
Even though local law enforcement teams work well together, the cooperation often stops at the state border with drug dealers escaping to Cincinnati.
No federal Drug Enforcement Administration office is located in the area, he said.
"The answers to the problems often stops at the river," Sanders said.
Dr. Jeremy Engel, part of the leadership team for the Northern Kentucky Heroin Impact Response Team, believes the best way to help with the heroin issues is through an increased number of residential treatment facilities - which needs funding.
"If this were any other issue, we would have people receiving treatment for an epidemic," he said.
Mac McArthur with Transitions, Inc. agreed.
He noted the region has been underfunded for over a decade, which has caused waitlists of two to six months for people seeking treatment.
Those two to six months are often months people won't live to see because of their addiction.
"It costs a lot more to not deal with the problem than to deal with the problem," he said.