Ohio is under siege as opiate addiction kills as many as 5 people every day. In fact, Ohio has the 12th highest heroin overdose rate in the country, according to the nonprofit Trust for America’s Health.
Often considered a suburban epidemic, heroin use crosses all ages, races and income levels. And the hike in heroin use has hit young people ages 18 to 25 the hardest, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
This frightening rise in heroin overdose deaths prompted clinical pharmacologists Michelle Bestic and Martha Blackford from Akron Children’s Hospital to organize a professional conference, “Adolescents and the Opioid Epidemic,” last month to study and discuss the problem.
“This conference is something that other people around the hospital and in the community requested,” Bestic said. “I have personally consulted on several cases involving teens and heroin use so our community is not immune from this.”
A whopping 200,000 Ohioans, a population as large as Akron, are addicted to opioids. And for most people, their addiction starts with prescription opioids.
However, as the medical community has taken measures to limit the use of prescription opioids, users have turned to heroin because it’s cheaper, more potent and easier to get.
Warning signs of drug abuse
“Hidden in Plain Sight,” one of the more popular sessions at the conference, recreated a teen’s bedroom to help parents identify signs their son or daughter may be using alcohol and drugs.
Created by Marcie Mason, a licensed social worker, and Officer Sarah Shendy from the Copley and Bath Township Police departments, the room included:
- Colorful aluminum cans that appear to be soda, but are actually alcohol-containing beverages such as Four Loko, Twisted Tea, Sparks and Jager Bombs.
- Pieces of aluminum foil that can be shaped into smoking devices.
- A small digital scale for weighing drugs; there’s also an app to convert a smartphone into a scale.
- Stuffed animals, books with carved-out nooks, plastic water bottles with special sections and even underwear with specially-designed compartments able to hide “dime bags” of marijuana or other drugs.
- Dryer sheets, deodorant, body spray, mouth wash, room air refresher and eye drops – all of which may indicate an effort to cover up the smell or symptoms of drug use.
- Plastic bags, balloons, desk cleaners, aerosol cans and other items that could indicate a teen getting high on inhalants.
Mason said her 31 years of experience have taught her that teens are vulnerable to peer pressure and risk-taking trends, ranging from Drunk Gummies (Gummy Bears soaked in alcohol) to concoctions made of prescription cough syrup, Sprite and Jolly Ranchers known as “Purple Drank,” “Sizzurp,” “Lean,” or Dirty Sprite,” and popularized by the rapper Lil Wayne and others.
The Internet makes these and other dangerous activities, such as the “Choking Game,” the “Cinnamon Challenge” and “Salt and Ice Challenge,” even more enticing by means of video, instructions and hype.
The dark side of the Web
In her presentation, Dr. Laura Markley, a pediatric psychiatrist at Akron Children’s Hospital, reinforced the message that the Internet may be a bigger risk than the neighborhood drug pusher.
She said advertisements for illegal drugs are common on Instagram, a popular social networking site, and law enforcement officials have encountered about 350 new synthetic drug compounds sold primarily online and imported from China and the Middle East.
The rapid rate at which drug formulas change and new compounds are developed has presented significant challenges for the DEA, the federal law enforcing agency aimed at combatting drug smuggling and use.
“The vast trade for drugs, guns and other illegal substances operates in a hidden layer of the Internet I call the ‘Darknet,’” Dr. Markley said.
Silk Road, the most notorious of these marketplaces, was dismantled in 2014 but others are thriving.
YouTube videos offer step-by-step instructions on how to acquire Bitcoin (a digital form of currency) and make transactions in the Darknet using Tor (The Onion Router), a sophisticated network that enables anonymous Internet communications.
Dr. Markley offers these tips for concerned parents:
- Monitor your teen’s use of the Internet and social networking sites.
- Check to see if a Tor browser has been downloaded on your teen’s computer.
- If your child asks about Bitcoin, learn what he knows about it and why he’s interested in this currency.
- Check all packages that come to your house.
- Don’t allow your teen to have her own P.O. box.