Heartbreaking details of heroin’s impact show the depth of a public health crisis - The Buffalo News

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Heartbreaking details of heroin’s impact show the depth of a public health crisis

Too many young people have lost their lives to opiate addiction, which often begins with abuse of painkillers, then turns into heroin addiction when users can no longer afford or access the pills.

One could fill volumes with stories of the addicts who have died, and the loved ones they left behind. The hope is that in the telling, someone’s life might be saved.

Recently, the family of Justin “JT” Lester stepped forward with their story of how he lived – and died. Sadly, his won’t be the last family touched by a loved one’s struggle with addiction.

News reporter Anne Neville’s story about JT may provide a vital lesson for an addict, or for family and friends who may pick up on behavioral changes in a loved one that point to addiction.

The problem is apparent as the death toll mounts. Five people died of suspected opiate overdoses last month in Buffalo, following a month with just one such death. That was a major improvement in the 10 suspected deaths in July. Still, authorities realize they are nowhere near a solution.

Erie County Health Department figures show that through June across the county, 118 people have died of opiate-related causes. The toll is expected to rise as tests come back confirming opioids as the cause in other deaths.

Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda called the situation an “epidemic” that he said is getting worse “because of what investigators are finding as they try to shut down opiate peddlers.”

In June, federal agents broke up a small drug ring that was selling 400 to 500 doses of heroin each day. Police discovered those dealers were receiving a remarkable 1,000 calls and texts a day from customers, many of them from affluent suburbs.

Mixed into this dangerous product are different variations of the potent painkiller fentanyl coming from unregulated Chinese chemical factories. Drug dealers add it to heroin in order to satisfy addicts looking for a more intense high, but it makes an overdose more likely.

Police are working, as they should be, to arrest people peddling this deadly concoction, but it won’t take long before others replace them. There is too much money to be made satisfying the cravings of addicts.

As a stopgap measure, thousands of first responders and hundreds of civilians have been trained and equipped with Narcan, a medication squirted in the nose that reverses the effects of an opiate overdose.

Real progress will mean getting many more people into long-term treatment programs and expanding access to buprenorphine, also known as Suboxone, which helps addicts kick the habit.

JT Lester survived overdoses in 2010 and 2014, but failed to complete his treatment program. His fatal overdose came last November during the double lake-effect storm.

His family wants us to know that he is more than a statistic. He was “bright, funny, caring and creative.”

His catchphrase from high school captures the lost opportunities as so many JTs succumb to addiction: “Lester for President.”

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