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National drug epidemic strikes close to home

Every day, 144 Americans die from a drug overdose, according to the Centers from Disease Control. More than 3,000 such deaths occur every three weeks, slightly more than the 2,997 people who died in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Of the 144 deaths per day, 91 (or 63 percent) are due to prescription drugs and heroin. And that number is growing.

The rise in prescription drugs and heroin abuse is a national epidemic. It’s also a Jasper County problem.

Ten Jasper County coroner’s cases were flagged in 2016 as prescription drug and substance abuse deaths, according to the coroner’s office.

Through May 5 of this year, four cases have been flagged. These numbers don’t include cases of overdose survival. Since May of 2016, the Jasper County Coroner’s office knows of at least 13 individuals Emergency Medical Services have saved, according to Deputy Coroner Todd Harvey.

With prescription drugs, the supplier becomes pharmaceutical companies, the distributor is a doctor, and the buyer is a patient. Prescriptions written by doctors for medicines like Percocet, Oxycontin, Hydrocodone and Oxycodone are legal, and often insurance companies cover the cost. This creates a legal supply of drugs. There’s no middle man or threat of violence, and little if any exchange of money. Prescription drugs have revolutionized drug addiction.

“Overdoses are a sickness; it’s an addiction, we have to look at it as a disease. The body starts needing and wanting it,” Harvey said. “I can remember years ago seeing folks that were getting opiates for pain and talking to them about how easy it was for them to be addicted to these pain medicines. Even before it was an epidemic as soon as the (drugs) came out, they would pop them like candy. … The addiction is there with these opiates.”

Jasper County Sheriff Chris Malphrus has said almost every drug bust he’s conducted he’s found some form of controlled substance or prescription drug packaged for distribution. Xanax, Percs (Percocet), and Loritabs are common, but fentanyl, carfentanil and U-47700 have emerged.

How is law enforcement working to control and conquer the growing problem?

When first responders answer a call about a drug overdose, most times they don’t know what the victim ingested. Taking a large number and variety of prescription drugs can lead to cardiac arrest or slowed or halted respiration. The long-term effect of mixing drugs is unknown, but can cause lasting damage.

“You get so many different drugs together and it becomes a whole different chemical concoction, and that’s what’s scary,” said Harvey.

When a responder arrives on site of an overdose, protocol isn’t to call law enforcement. Only when the victim dies or there’s a threat of imminent danger to the responder, victim does law enforcement get called.

If a victim survives an overdose, the toxicology report isn’t sent to the coroner’s office. If the victim survives, law enforcement is only called if requested by the victim.

“When you’re bearing witness to a crime in progress, i.e, if we (EMS) get sent to a laceration and the knife is still in the person or a puncture or gunshot wound stories that aren’t adding up. The concern I think we’re going to have is, if we start calling law enforcement to medical calls, are we going to expose our personnel to unnecessary targeting? Because now all of a sudden you’re dipping into a drug lord’s area or you’re walking into a crack house, stash house, something of that nature,” said Jasper County EMS officer Rusty Wells during an open discussion last week among county, state and federal officials at the EMS building.

Safe way to destroy drugs

Jasper and Beaufort counties are working to increase the level of information communicated between agencies.

Harvey said Monday the counties are teaching police officers how to use and administer Narcan – which is available in a nasal spray and injection to treat opioid overdoses by kick-starting the body’s ability to respire. Certifying law enforcement officers can help get them on scene to spearhead pressing criminal charges.

Harvey said he’s spoken to Hardeeville Police Chief Sam Woodward and Malphrus about applying for a grant to install prescription-drug recycling bins around the county. The idea is to bring prescription drugs no longer being used and place them in the secured bin to be destroyed properly. People would be encouraged to bring outdated prescriptions and unused drugs in the medicine cabinet a main point of access for potential and chronic abusers.

Read more about the drug epidemic in Jasper County in upcoming editions of the Jasper County Sun Times.

More Info

Breakout Box: 

2016 Jasper Substance-related Deaths

Patient Number Sex Age Toxicology Report

1 F 57 Analgesics, Antidepressants, Antihistamines, Narcotics

2 M 60 Benzodiazepines, Antihistamines

3 M 41 Opiates, Alcohol

4 M 58 Benzodiazepines, Antihistamines

5 M 33 Amphetamines, Benzodiazepines, Opiates, Fentanyl

6 F 41 Opiates, Alcohol

7 M 42 Benzodiazepines

8 M 56 Opiates, Alcohol, Antihistamines

9 M 40 Cocaine, Alcohol

10 M 51 Fentanyl, Alcohol, Anesthetics

2017 Jasper Substance-related Deaths (Jan-May 2017)

Patient Number Sex Age Toxicology Report

11 M 19 Cocaine, Methadone, Opiates, Antihistamines, Narcotics

12 F 59 Opiates, Alcohol, Antidepressants, Antihistamines

13 M 35 Cocaine, Benzoylecgonine

14 M 36 Antidepressants, Antihistamines

The tables show the Jasper County coroner’s flagged cases of substance-related deaths from 2016 and 2017. Shown are substances found in the bloodstream of each patient from toxicology reports. For privacy, the day of death, race, official ruling of death, and the attributed cause of death are omitted.

Source: Jasper County Coroner’s Office

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