The Heroin Crisis in Orange County: An Exploding Problem

The recent explosion in the addiction crisis across America has not discriminated in the populations it has affected. Young, old, wealthy, and poor have all fallen victim to heroin addiction. It has crossed where there were once economic, racial and gender divides, and has left almost everyone affected in some way.

A Look at the Numbers in Orange County

Orange County, California is no different. From their affluent sections to rougher neighborhoods, the soaring rate of heroin overdoses has left the county reeling to bring down the 10-year high. The county was ranked 3rd in the state for drug overdoses between 2013 to 2015, and those numbers are continuing to soar. According to the Orange County Sheriff- Coroner Division, overdose-related fatalities have risen 82% since 2000. They have accounted for nearly 700 deaths each year.

The rise in heroin use is a result of the opioid epidemic that has exploded over the last decade. Many individuals, finding themselves addicted to pain relievers, turn to the significantly cheaper heroin. Still finding themselves needing to chase the high, heroine becomes an attractive, and deadly, choice.

In fact, almost half of the 145 men who died from opioid- related causes in Orange County last year had some heroin in their system. What used to be viewed as two separate issues has slowly been turning into one as addicts seek out any drug available.

As addicts are seeking a cheaper high, Orange County’s proximity to Mexico becomes a tempting choice as it not only saves money on heroin, but it also much easier to obtain.

However, the heroin from Mexico is an even riskier drug than the already deadly heroin. A specific type of heroin known as “black tar” comes out of Mexico and is a far more potent drug than the heroin from the United States. Black tar is made using a cheaper process, making it stronger, less expensive and even more dangerous. It is also increasing in popularity across the nation as the more traditional kinds of heroin are declining on the east coast and Columbia in part because of a US policy that encourages the destruction of poppy fields.

Not only is the heroin itself deadlier across the border, but Mexican heroin is often cut or even replaced with fentanyl. Fentanyl is an opioid that is extremely potent and originally created for pain relief. In recent years the use of fentanyl has also exploded, and has been estimated to have contributed to 20,100 deaths in the US alone in 2016. It is extremely easy to overdose on fentanyl and has multiple lethal combinations with other drugs that the addict likely knows nothing about (even if they realize they are taking fentanyl).

Ironically, it is Orange County’s affluence that has contributed to its heroin crisis. Readily-available opioids from doctors, hospitals, and even from friends and family leave many addicted. What may have started as genuine pain (especially among older generations of addicts) quickly turns into a serious addiction. The high costs of opioids (sometimes fetching as much as $30 a pill) cause many to turn to heroin. Once they have become addicted to heroin many dangerous side effects start to occur, either from overdosing on the wrong drug or taking riskier versions of heroin.


Public Reaction to the Heroin Crisis

As officials have been slow to act, many crisis centers and individuals are taking it upon themselves to help put a stop to the epidemic.

Huntington Beach Police spokesperson, Angela Bennett, stated that there was no heroin crisis despite the soaring rates. Huntington Beach has the highest percentage rates in the county, but the city seems either unwilling or unable to do too much to address it. Indeed, the county, as a whole, has been slow to take action.

However, many crisis centers and organizations are stepping in to help victims of addiction. Many have taken it upon themselves to spread the use of naloxone. Naloxone, also known by its brand name Narcan, is an extremely effective drug in preventing death when an overdose occurs. It blocks the effect of the overdose and is administered by either nasal spray, intravenous or muscle injection. Reactions to the drug are rare and it is not harmful if someone not overdosing happens to take it. Approved by the FDA in 1971, it has been listed by the World Health Organization as one of the essential medicines.

Many counties around the nation have taken it upon themselves to make sure that naloxone is widely distributed. It is given to the police, fire fighters and other emergency personnel so that they can respond quickly if they are faced with a heroin overdose. Many times it is also given to the addicts themselves in case they or a friend may need it.

San Francisco, for example, also suffered from a soaring overdose rate. They have an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 heroin addicts in the city alone. In response, they launched the Drug Overdose Prevention and Education (DOPE) program. They have sought to make sure that naloxone is distributed across the city and hand out thousands of kits every year. They have recently even been moving to train librarians how to handle overdoses. As a result, deaths from heroin overdose in San Francisco are comparatively low. In 2016, they managed to prevent 877 deaths with overdose reversals.

There are programs in Orange County that are seeking to provide the same services to local drug addicts. Solace, the first non-profit organization of its kind in Orange County, is also providing training in overdose reversal to those who need it. It was founded by Aimee Dunkle, who lost her own son to a heroin overdose at age 20. What had started out as a prescription for Vicodin quickly turned into a heroin addiction for her son.

Dunkle’s organization meets every Saturday afternoon at the Civic Center in Santa Ana for a needle exchange program. It is there that they also train individuals to use naloxone and give them the lifesaving medication in case they should need to administer it. They estimate that since 2016, they have saved over 548 addicts with their overdose reversal.

Heroin Addicts: Orange County’s Unexpected Crisis

Because of Orange County’s affluence, many have been caught off guard by the recent heroin epidemic. In the meantime, addicts continue to suffer and die, and their families are left to grieve. Some family members, such as Aimee Dunkle, have started to take action for themselves, stepping in and reaching out to heroin addicts to prevent any further deaths. There are also addiction centers across the county, overburdened, but working hard to help people overcome their addiction.

Although there are no set numbers on how many addicts are in Orange County, it is clear by the upward trend of arrests (which have gone up a third in Huntington Beach alone) and deaths that it is becoming a growing problem. With the opioid crisis sweeping across the nation, heroin is close behind and Orange County is suffering as much as everyone else.

Growing awareness will hopefully spark conversations that will lead to change. Addicts are often left in the dark, ashamed of their problem and feeling like a failure because they cannot overcome it. By sparking conversations and programs to reach out to the suffering, much of the heartbreak, pain, and death spreading across Orange County can be prevented and reversed.

If you or a loved one are affected by heroin addiction, please contact us today for a confidential talk.