Heroin use ended more lives across Northwest Indiana in 2013 than any other illegal drug, according to local coroner reports.
Lake County had 18 heroin-related deaths last year, followed by Porter County at 16 and LaPorte County at 12.
While law enforcement officials continue to battle the flow of heroin into the area and treatment providers attack the problem at the level of individual users, efforts are underway downstate that could immediately save more lives, proponents say.
State lawmakers are pondering a proposal that would allow police, fire and emergency responders the right to administer the drug naloxone, branded as Narcan, which quickly neutralizes the effect of heroin and other opioids, according to Aaron Kochar, director of prevention and education at Porter Starke Services.
Naloxone, which has been used for decades and currently is limited in Indiana to use by physicians, earns its label as a miracle drug by taking as little as three to five minutes to reverse an opioid overdose, he said.
Naloxone works by kicking heroin off brain receptors and reversing the oxygen deprivation that leads to death.
The tragic death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman of an apparent heroin overdose has underscored the growing number of heroin deaths in the U.S. that cut across class, race, age and gender lines. It also highlights the need not only to try to stem heroin addiction, but also heroin deaths due to overdose, giving addicts a second chance to fight the disease.
Hoffman was found dead in the bathroom of his New York City apartment Sunday morning with what officials said was a heroin-filled needle in his arm. He was 46. Officials said he died of an apparent overdose. Fifty packets of heroin were reportedly found in his apartment, and nearly 20 used needles.
The actor, who was nominated for an Academy Award four times and won for best actor in 2006 for his work in "Capote," spoke candidly over the years about past struggles with drug addiction. He admitted in interviews last year to developing a heroin problem again that led to time spent in a rehabilitation facility.
It is important to put naloxone into the hands of first responders because heroin overdose deaths can take one to three hours, meaning there is often time to seek help when problems are discovered, said Porter Starke Services' Kochar.
The proposed legislation was amended recently into Senate Bill 227 and is pending before the House after clearing the Senate. It also now would provide emergency officials with immunity from civil liability. The House has until March 3 to act on the bill.
Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller announced Friday his support for the naloxone amendment.
First responders in Illinois already have access to naloxone, and Chicago provides the drug to lay people who are at risk of overdose or associate with those at risk, Kochar said. Naloxone is credited with reversing overdoses involving 10,171 people nationwide since 1996, he said.
Kochar dismisses the concern that increasing access to naloxone to emergency responders or even lay people will encourage the use of heroin. He said this sort of logic is not part of addictive thinking, and that people who received overdose training with naloxone have reported a decrease in drug use.
Geography is said to be one of the key reasons abuse of heroin is so prevalent in Northwest Indiana. Traffickers from Mexico and the southern United States use Interstate 65, then head west toward Chicago or east toward Detroit on Interstate 94, local officials have said.
Patti Van Til, Lake County Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman, said members of the local drug task force list heroin as the biggest problem they face.
Porter County Prosecutor Brian Gensel said many of those dying from heroin overdoses also have prescription drugs in their system.
A crackdown on the misuse of prescription drugs also appears to be having the unintended effect of fueling heroin use throughout the region and elsewhere around the state, said Carmen Arlt, director of Porter Starke's Recovery Center methadone maintenance treatment program.
As access to legal pain medications dried up with closer scrutiny of physicians beginning in December, users sought out other drugs, including heroin, which is readily available, cheap and potent, she said. This story has been heard at each of the state's 14 methadone clinics, she said.
Heroin use also has made its way into more rural areas that once were dealing mainly with methamphetamine, Arlt said.
LaPorte County Coroner John Sullivan, who also works as a first responder and firefighter, said he has seen a lot of nonfatal heroin overdoses, especially in the city of LaPorte.
Gensel said heroin use continues to be most popular among those in their early 20s. The answer continues to be a multifaceted approach involving law enforcement, treatment, mental health services and education, he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.