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The Core - Inside Ohio's opioid crisis

The Core (WSYX/WTTE)
The Core (WSYX/WTTE)
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Resource: If you need help, you can call 1-877-275-6364, which will connect you with the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (ODMHAS). More resources can be found at the bottom of this page.

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Trains screech by on a sunny day in Chillicothe. The only other sound coming from the rhythmical flip and flop of Lagenna's sandals over the rocks and dirt next to the tracks. It’s steamy outside. So, she positions herself in the shade against a concrete pilon covered with graffiti. That way she can see who’s coming. She searches through pockets and under her clothes until she finds what she’s been hiding. It’s a tiny black package that she begins to methodically unroll, ultimately transforming its contents into a generic-looking substance that she draws into a needle from the bottom of an upside-down Dr. Pepper can. Once she finally hits a vein, the fentanyl hits her bloodstream and relief comes.

“I have to use it,” said Lagenna, who asked that we not use her last name. “I don’t get high no more. I’m just well.”

She has been using on and off since she was 20. Currently days away from her 30th birthday, she now estimates she uses up to ten times a day, depending on the potency. It started with a prescription for Percocet, after suffering from preeclampsia. After two months of daily use, she says the prescription ended, so she started buying it off the street for $35-$40 per pill. The cost lead her to a new drug.

“I’m cheap,” said Lagenna. “I went to the cheap, quick fix, which was heroin. And now they say ‘you’re getting heroin’, but I know what I do. I do fentanyl.”

She says she uses each day to keep the sickness at bay. Without steady use, she describes the feeling as “the flu times two,” with chills, sweats and nausea.

“I’m not looking to get high, because I can’t afford it,” said Lagenna. “So, I’m just looking to get well, but I can’t be negligent. I’ve got kids.”

She waited until after she put her three kids on the bus to school that morning before deciding it was the right time to get her “fix.” She is aware of the dangers of what she is putting in her veins. But right now the addiction is too strong for her to fight.

“You’re playing Russian Roulette,” said Lagenna. “You’re either going to be high or dead.”

4,854 Ohioans died from drug overdoses in 2017. That’s more than car crashes, gun deaths and homicides combined, according to data from the Ohio Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control. It’s the second-highest overdose death rate in America.

“We still have a significant problem with overdose deaths here in Franklin County,” said Anahi Ortiz, M.D., the Franklin County Coroner. “In 2019 compared to last year, same first six months, we’ve seen about a five percent increase.”

After several spikes in the second half of the year, Dr. Ortiz now estimates 2019’s rate of overdose deaths will be 5-10% higher than 2018.

She says her office has responded to overdoses in every single area of Franklin County.

“Pretty much every single zip code, in every single area,” said Dr. Ortiz. “New Albany, Upper Arlington, Hilliard, Dublin, Westerville, Grove City, we’ve seen it from all of them. It’s everywhere.”

But it’s not just a problem in Franklin County, it’s a problem all over Ohio. Governor Mike Dewine has seen it from the perspective of multiple public offices he has held over the years, including the Attorney General of Ohio, Greene County Prosecutor, U.S. Congressman and Senator, as well as Greene County Prosecutor.

“This thing started with pain meds,” said Mike Dewine, Governor of the State of Ohio. “People moved from pain meds to heroin, and then now to fentanyl. Fentanyl is 50, 60,70 times more potent than heroin.”

While fentanyl is normally a drug prescribed by a physician for anesthetic purposes, Dr. Ortiz says what’s found on the street is illicitly made, so it’s not pharmaceutical grade. Then, it’s often mixed with other illegal substances.

“The drug dealers, the Mexican drug cartels, they’re mixing this stuff into all kinds of other drugs and only it takes a small minute amount of fentanyl to kill somebody. So that’s why the death rates are so high,” said Governor Dewine. “You can’t describe this is as any other way than a huge health crisis in the state of Ohio.”

ABC 6 and FOX 28 spent more than six months speaking with people struggling in active addiction and traveling alongside Franklin County Sheriff’s investigators as they worked to get drugs off the streets and responded to fatal overdoses.

Amidst the grief, tragedy and despair, we also found hope. Help is being offered in more ways than ever and there are signs the situation finally could be improving. The results of this investigation is The Core: an in-depth exploration of Ohio’s opioid crisis.

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