- Local and state leaders are working to reverse the tides of a heroin epidemic that has swept the state and claimed at least 70 lives in Horry County so far this year.
"We’re seeing two overdoses a week in Horry County," 15th Circuit Solicitor Jimmy Richardson told a crowd gathered for a community awareness meeting on the drug at Living Water Baptist Church Thursday night.
The county was recently cited as having the most heroin overdoses in the state, but another drug often sold as heroin is claiming more lives as well.
Tamara Willard, chief deputy coroner of Horry County, said that 15 lives have been lost to fentanyl or a dangerous cocktail of the potent painkiller mixed with heroin in the first 10 months of 2016.
"I grew up in Horry County so I’ve seen a lot of familiar faces and I know a lot of people here," Willard said. "The worst thing about my job is (when) I have to go to a family that I grew up with and inform that family that their loved one has died from something so senseless."
Patrick Apel, resident agent in charge for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, said that Mexican cartels learned a few years ago that they could make a lot more money mixing their heroin with fentanyl, a painkiller given to end-stage cancer patients. It’s at least 40 times more potent than heroin and overdoses happen quick for people buying pure fentanyl that they believe to be heroin, according to Apel.
Drug agents say they are seeing more pure fentanyl sold on the streets as heroin.
"Anybody using heroin today is playing Russian roulette with their lives," Apel said.
Speakers at the meeting acknowledged the epidemic started in the medicine cabinet.
The United States makes up 5 percent of the world’s population but uses 90 percent of the world’s hydrocodone, Richardson told the crowd, citing a statistic from the Centers for Disease Control. The country saw a 402 percent increase in prescriptions for hydrocodone, a commonly prescribed opioid, from 1997 to 2011.0
And as more and more Americans became addicted to painkillers, many were forced to turn to cheaper alternatives on the street when access to those pills went away.
But the addictions have led to greater problems.
Richardson cited more statistics:
-1 in every 100 U.S. citizens is now confined to jail or prison.
-1 out of every 15 African American men is confined to jail or prison.
-1 out of every 36 Hispanic men is confined to jail or prison.
-80 percent of offenders abuse alcohol or drugs.
-50 percent of jail and prison inmates are clinically addicted.
-60 percent of arrestees test positive for illicit drugs at arrest.
-It costs $13,000 a year to house one incarcerated inmate.
"This epidemic cannot be solved by law enforcement. It has to be a multi-pronged approach from the faith-based community, from the prosecutors, from the healthcare, certainly from law enforcement," Apel said. "But law enforcement alone cannot do it. The demand is there. The demand is going to continue."
Joe Quigley, athletic director at North Myrtle Beach High School, said the fight to keep kids off of drugs needs to start in the home.
"I have seen a lot of things in education in a lot of years, but what I’m seeing now does scare me," he said, telling the crowd about rumors of "pill parties" he hears kids talk about in school.
He encouraged parents to be more active in their children’s lives and to monitor their social media accounts closely. But the school district could step up as well, he said.
"I think we need random drug tests in our school system," Quigley told the crowd, adding that other districts across the state are seriously considering that.
Although the heroin epidemic is daunting, Sen. Greg Hembree told the audience, hope remains.
He reminded the crowd of the state’s motto: "While I breathe, I hope."
"This is a scary problem, a difficult problem, but there is reason for hope," he said. "There are strategies and solutions and ways that we can tackle this issue."
The senator said that the state passed legislation in 2015 that allowed doctors to prescribe Narcan, an opiate overdose reversal drug, to first responders, police officers and caregivers to revive those who overdose. The state is also working on legislation to provide immunity to users who call 911 to report when someone overdoses. The law has proven successful in other states at increasing overdose recoveries that could have led to death.
Hembree said the state is also in need of legislation that cracks down on doctor shopping with a prescription drug tracking system. The state also needs more treatment centers, he said.
But there are places and programs that can help.
Horry County hosts two in-patient facilities: Lighthouse Care Center of Conway and Shoreline Behavioral Health Services, also based in Conway. Shoreline offers group counseling, individual counseling, intensive outpatient programs, adolescent and family counseling, drug and alcohol testing services and operates a women’s residential program.
Lighthouse is a psychiatric hospital facility that offers inpatient treatment for mental illness and substance abuse disorders, according to its website. It offers free in-person or over-the-phone assessments 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Narcotics Anonymous, a non-profit society of men and women who have battled drug addictions, is also available to help recovering addicts.
WHERE TO GET HELP
Shoreline Behavioral Health Services
Lighthouse Care Center of Conway
Address: 152 Waccamaw Medical Park Drive, Conway
Help Line: 866-515-8962 or 843-449-6262