Everyone’s problem

By on March 4, 2015

Community wakes up to local heroin abuse

A common tool for heroin users is a plastic bottle cap in which the drug is mixed with water and drawn up through a bit of cotton. (LNP photo)

A common tool for heroin users is a plastic bottle cap in which the drug is mixed with water and drawn up through a bit of cotton. (LNP photo)

A collective shock flooded Warwick Middle School during Drugs 101: What You Need to Know: The Reality of the Heroin Epidemic on Thursday, Feb. 26.

In the United States, Pennsylvania ranks third for the state with the highest population of heroin users. In Central Pennsylvania alone, an estimated 34,000 teenagers between the ages of 12 and 17 will try heroin for the first time this year. Action for Substance Abuse Prevention, a new group in Lititz, partnered with the Byrnes Education Center to host the presentation for parents. ASAP Lititz’s goal is to provide education and support for the community, specifically focusing on the abuse of prescription medications and the transition to heroin use.

“This whole objective and initiative is for community awareness so people know it’s going on everywhere and we don’t just act like it’s not,” said Ryan Axe, Warwick High School principal.

According to school district public relations coordinator Lori Zimmerman, the school has hosted events like this in the past and received a very small turn out. This time, it was evident that the epidemic has the attention of not just parents, but the entire community. Over 200 people flooded into the middle school auditorium for the meeting.

“It’s really encouraging to me as the high school principal to have a group like ASAP who initiated this partnership, because a lot of communities do not have this type of investment,” said Axe.

This sense of community was felt in the room as people hugged each other before the presentation started. An anonymous local donor paid for the event.

Byrnes Education Center covers the three gateway drugs &tstr; tobacco, alcohol and inhalants. The host then selects three drugs that are most prevalent in their community. ASAP Lititz selected marijuana, prescription medication and heroin.

Byrnes Education Center presenters Jamie Rissinger and Nikole Tome started by making the point that you cannot stereotype drug use. They defined a drug as any chemical that changes the way the body works. Yes, this includes caffeine. There are five ways to ingest drugs into your system, and each method takes a certain amount of time before the drug affects the brain. Absorbing and swallowing the drug take the longest, at 20 to 30 minutes. Snorting affects the brain in three to five minutes, injection takes 10 to 20 seconds. The fastest is inhalation at three to seven seconds.

Drug use increases when the perceived risk and social disapproval is low. This is what makes prescription medication abuse so dangerous. Two-thirds of people with an addiction to prescription medication got it from the medicine cabinet, whether it be their own prescription or one belonging to parents or grandparents.

Heroin is significantly cheaper than buying pills off the street, with around five bags costing the same as one pill. Pill addiction is what typically opens the gate to heroin use.

“Let’s all take a deep breath,” said Rissinger as an image of piles of brown and white powder appeared on the screen. Next were the shocking statistics of heroin use in Pennsylvania and specifically Lancaster County.

Rissinger asked if anyone had ever received morphine in the hospital. Imagine that feeling. Heroin is four times stronger than morphine. Users experience decreased pain and a rush of euphoria. They will look like zombies, experiencing a droopy mouth, unfocused eyes and pinhole sized pupils that will not change in size as they should when exposed to light. Itching, scratch marks and stained fingers and tongues can all be signs of heroin use, as well as taking an abnormally long time in the bathroom. Heroin can be smoked, snorted or injected.

“We don’t want to think this would happen to our kids, but this is our reality,” said Rissinger.

Erica Breckenmacker, a sixth grade teacher at John Beck, collected information at the end of the presentation. Understanding her students are about to enter into middle school, which is a major transition for them, she wanted to get more facts about what they will face. She felt the presentation was very informative.

Karen Esbenshade of Lititz has seen how heroin has affected children that she and her daughters know. “I feels it’s important to support ASAP and understand the full effect of drug use,” she said. “It exceeded what I expected.”

Some attendees weren’t shocked by the information.

“We’ve been through what their kids are going through. We lived it. Nothing is shocking to us,” said Ryan Menkins and Dan Bacon, community members who are in recovery.

“We want to support the community as much as they want to support us,” said Menkins. In their mid-twenties, they both came to the meeting because they want to help.

Menkins shared that he tore his ACL wrestling and was prescribed painkillers. When they became less available, he said, “I went to Philly and never looked back.”

Bacon was an electrician and started using at 23 years old. He skipped all of the gateway drugs, except for occasionally drinking socially. He was going through a hard time and wanted to escape.

Although both are in recovery, Bacon said, “Your family doesn’t understand that the problem continues after you stop.” They described taking drugs away as being similar to taking a blanket away from a baby. They have operated on the reward system for so long, it is difficult to reset.

And ultimately, this is where the community is now. The reality of drug abuse has been swept out from under the rug, but what comes next?

“There’s no blue print for the right course of action,” said Lititz Borough Police Chief William Seace.

As a law enforcement officer in Lititz for 35 years, Seace has seen first-hand the effects of increased drug use in the community.

“It’s everybody’s problem,” he said, pointing out that increased drug use leads to increased crime. “We can all put our heads in the sand and ignore it, but we can’t do that.”

ASAP Lititz is already one step ahead, planning a meeting for the middle and high school students in the spring, and developing their next plan of action. They will split into smaller committees and start the next steps in guiding the community to recovery. This meeting was only the beginning.

“The more I think about it, the more I think of who we missed and who didn’t make it,” said Mike Michael of ASAP Lititz. “I can only hope that those who chose not to come aren’t just being naïve, that they’re not falling into that category of ‘I don’t have to worry about it because I have a good kid.’”

Lenay Ruhl is a local freelance reporter for the Record Express. She welcomes reader feedback at lenay.ruhl@gmail.com. 

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