A deadly heroin epidemic is cutting across Connecticut, and Easton isn’t immune from it.
Use of heroin and opioids — medications designed to relieve pain — appear to be at an all-time high, causing lawmakers to take action.
Police Chief Tim Shaw is worried that the increased opioid problem across the state will only continue to grow in Easton.
Shaw said “the numbers are astronomical. It’s worse now than ever. The purity is higher and the price is cheaper. It’s a horrible situation because it affects everyone.”
Shaw said he has been attending meetings every day on the epidemic right now between the federal government, the state and the police chiefs.
“Everyone is trying to get a handle on it and figure out how to proceed,” he said. “Pills seem to be at the forefront to the transition to heroin. The overdose numbers of heroin users are through the roof.”
A recent crime spree in Easton mirrors thefts along the Interstate 84 and Merritt Parkway corridors across the state that are happening hand-in-hand with the heroin and opiate epidemic, Shaw said. READ ABOUT THE CRIME SPREE HERE.
Fortunately Easton hasn’t had too much as far as responding to calls, Shaw said, but that could change at any time.
Easton police are in the process of equipping each vehicle with Narcan, a common term for Naloxone,which is an antidote to an opiate overdose and is available as a nasal spray.
The epidemic has already struck in neighboring towns with similar demographics as Easton.
Last August, a Weston resident died in a heroin and cocaine overdose while attending the University of Pittsburgh.
Also in August, it was revealed that former Weston resident Kyle Navin was a heroin user following his arrest for allegedly killing his parents, Jeffrey and Jeanette Navin, who were Easton residents when they mysteriously disappeared. Their remains were later discovered at a Weston residence.
According to a police affidavit, numerous heroin brand-stamped glassine baggies with heroin residue, hypodermic needles, and empty prescription bottles for oxycodone were found in Navin’s Bridgeport home at the time of his arrest.
Connecticut has seen a drastic rise in opioid overdoses in recent years. According to a report released on Feb. 14, the Connecticut chief medical examiner’s office confirmed that heroin, morphine or codeine, three common opioids, were present in 444 deaths statewide in 2015. That number is up from 349 in 2014 and 286 in 2013.
Politicians in the state are taking the opioid epidemic seriously and looking to introduce legislation to help end it.
In a summit meeting this week in New London, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney met with local officials to speak about the dangers of opiates and heroin in the state.
Blumenthal criticized Congress and the FDA for “allowing addiction to run rampant across the nation.”
He said the government needs to treat the opioid issue as a natural disaster. “The federal government has lagged in dealing with this drug problem,” he said.
According to a report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, heroin usage often begins between the ages of 18 and 25, with 23 being the average age of first-time users. According to those studies, heroin and opioid usage among children age 12 to 17 is relatively uncommon.
Weston High School follows the national averages. Heroin and other opioids aren’t the drug of choice for students in town.
“There’s a ton of pot, but other drugs really aren’t that bad,” said high school senior Nathan Saldinger. “There’s also a very strong drinking culture.”
Another student, who asked to remain anonymous, confirmed Nathan’s report.
“There’s a lot of alcohol and weed,” the student said. “Sometimes it extends to Molly and pills, but I’ve never heard of anyone doing heroin.”
Molly, or MDMA, is the common name for the drug otherwise known as Ecstasy. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, Ecstasy produces “feelings of increased energy, euphoria, emotional warmth and empathy towards others.”
Ecstasy is a popular party drug, often used at music festivals, raves, and house parties. It is commonly laced with other drugs like cocaine and methamphetamines, unbeknownst to the drug user.
Emergency room visits from Ecstasy have risen over 100% from 2005 to 2011, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Nathan and the other student said recreational use of prescription drugs such as Xanax and Adderall are also common, but not to the extent of marijuana or alcohol.
Nathan, who is also a student leader of the Weston-based Alcohol and Drug Awareness Program (ADAP), believes the school curriculum should focus on being more transparent about the effects of drugs and alcohol.
“I think there needs to be more honesty about how dangerous things are,” he said, adding that the common narrative of marijuana being a “gateway drug” to more dangerous substances seems outdated. “It’s something our parents would have learned,” he said.
Noting the easing of marijuana laws, Nathan said he believes schools should focus more on keeping kids away from harder drugs. To that end, he believes more resources should be devoted to drug education.
“I think the most important thing is being realistic,” he said. “I haven’t had a drug education class since my freshman year.”
Troxell said he hopes adding a school resource officer (SRO) to Weston High School will help stop drug issues before they continue to grow.
“I would hope the benefit of an SRO program would be staying in front of the heroin epidemic,” said Troxell. “Having somebody in the schools that the students trust would be very beneficial.”
Troxell said his plan for an SRO would include presentations to students regarding the dangers of drug use, specifically heroin and opioids. He also hopes students would come to the SRO with anonymous tips to get their peers any help they might need.
“Young people have a ton of problems that we aren’t privy to because we aren’t a presence in the schools,” said Troxell. “I hope students would feel comfortable enough to go to the SRO for help.”
What are opioids?
Drugs such as Percocet, Vicodin and OxyContin are common opioids that doctors often prescribe to patients experiencing severe pain.
“The gateway to heroin is other opioids,” said Basil Hero, director of Westport-based Positive Directions, a mental health and drug treatment center.
“Opioids diminish the effects of painful stimulus. A kid might play a sport and get hurt and be prescribed Vicodin. There is a tendency to overprescribe those painkillers,” he said.
Gary Mendell, founder and CEO of Shatterproof, a Norwalk-based organization committed to ending drug addiction, said that after the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of OxyContin in 1995, there was a large spike in opioids being prescribed by doctors.
He said opioid prescriptions increased four times over from 1999 to 2014. Similarly, the number of opioid-related deaths over the same time frame increased nearly five times over.
Most recently, deaths from heroin mixed with the opioid fentanyl have skyrocketed.
In 2012, there was one death in Connecticut caused by a mixture of heroin and fentanyl. In 2015 there were 107.
“Heroin users aren’t seeking out fentanyl,” said Mendell, adding that fentanyl, a drug that is stronger than both heroin and morphine, is often mixed into heroin by drug dealers.
Since 2012, Connecticut has passed four pieces of legislation to try to curb the growing opioid problem in the state.
In 2012, the state passed a Good Samaritan law stating there would be no legal consequence for someone who calls an ambulance for a person who overdoses.
“If you aren’t the drug dealer, you have immunity if you’re with someone who overdoses,” said Mendell.
In 2014, the state passed a law that allowed for broader access to naloxone, a drug that is injected to reverse the effects of an opiate.
The law allows for police to carry pens containing naloxone. According to Mendell, in the four months following the implementation of the law, 44 lives were saved by the injection.
“Many states that pass a broader access of naloxone don’t implement it,” Mendell said. “Connecticut did a wonderful job by training police immediately and giving them naloxone pens.”
In 2015, legislation furthered a broader implementation of naloxone by allowing pharmacies to prescribe the drug.
Steven McFarland, pharmacist at Lang’s Pharmacy in Weston, said the pharmacy is looking to carrying naloxone soon. “It’s something we’re thinking about carrying by summer,” he said.
McFarlane said naloxone is prescribed by a pharmacist based on his/her discretion, so Lang’s is looking at how to pursue that in the future. “Luckily we’re close to Weston EMS (Emergency Medical Services), who carry it, if necessary,” he said.
Troxell said Weston police don’t currently carry naloxone because they haven’t been trained with using it yet. “We’re looking to get trained in it in the near future,” he said.
Nationally, there is a program that requires all prescriptions to be entered into a database. In 2015, Connecticut became the fifth state where doctors are required to check the database and review a patient’s prescription history before giving the patient access to prescription pills, including all opioids.
According to Mendell, doctors don’t check a patient’s prescription history 86% of the time in states where the law doesn’t make it mandatory.
States that make it mandatory for doctors to check this history see a 50% decrease in “doctor shoppers,” or patients who go to different doctors to get multiples of the same opioid prescriptions.
Mendell claims doctor shoppers are seven times more likely to die from an overdose.
“It is very important that Connecticut passed this law,” said Mendell. “We were very active in helping the governor pass this legislation and we’re currently in four additional states hiring lobbyists to get this passed.”
Weston teens who are having problems with opioids and other drugs, and don’t feel comfortable talking to their parents, can turn to ADAP for help.
At ADAP meetings, teens discuss drug and alcohol issues with their peers and professionals.
“Everything in ADAP is confidential,” said Eilene Brostoff, president of ADAP.
ADAP meets on the first Monday of every month at the Weston Library at 7 p.m.
Brostoff said about 30 kids attend each meeting, and they’re open to having more join in.
Nathan thinks more students should attend ADAP meetings.
“It’s a safe space to say things that we might be hesitant to say,” he said. “If you say something worrisome, the directors don’t make a big deal of it in front of everyone but will talk to you privately after.”
Positive Directions, Hero’s organization, is another resource teens can use if they or a loved one are abusing opioids or other drugs.
“We provide prevention and educational programs,” said Hero. “We’re also available to help with treatment.”