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In 2017, for the first time, Americans were more likely to die from an accidental opioid overdose than a motor vehicle accident, according to a study released last week.

But a Times examination of local drug overdose death records found that has been the case in Northwest Indiana since 2013.

"It's not something new for us," said Chuck Harris, who until this year was the Porter County coroner. "We've been in that boat for some time."

The Times analysis illustrates how the opioid epidemic came to the Region sooner than other parts of the country. Some explanations include Northwest Indiana's relative affluence and location in area where a lot of drugs move through.

"They call it the 'Heroin Highway,'" Harris said of the stretch of Interstate 94 that goes from Chicago to Detroit. The Indiana High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, one of 28 such federally funded agencies dedicated to the interdiction of illegal narcotics, is based in Crown Point.

Nationwide, the lifetime odds of dying from an opioid overdose are 1 in 96, compared to 1 in 103 for a motor vehicle accident, the National Safety Council reported Monday. The Times found that in Northwest Indiana those odds are 1 in 49 and 1 in 93, respectively.

Because of the confluence of highways and large number of drunken drivers, among other factors, the Region is one of the most dangerous places to drive a car in the state and nation, a Times investigation found last year.

The Times did the overdose analysis by looking at drug deaths from the Lake, LaPorte and Porter County coroner offices going back to 2012 and comparing them to state and federal fatal accident data.

However, some of the records didn't list the specific drugs involved or were incomplete — The Times got most of the LaPorte County data by going through disorganized paper archives in a warehouse in downtown LaPorte — so the actual odds of dying of an opioid overdose in Northwest Indiana actually may be higher.

"Now everybody talks about this buzz phrase of the opioid epidemic," said Herb Stepherson, outreach coordinator and recovery coach for True Interventions in Merrillville and USA Addiction in Highland. "But Northwest Indiana has had a problem with heroin and opioids since the '90s."

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Stepherson, of Valparaiso, said he first tried heroin in the early 2000s. He even remembers a Chicago housing project selling heroin that was laced with fentanyl, which has been responsible for much of the recent American death toll.

He blamed "denial" for the epidemic growing in the Region and country as a whole. He said parents often forgive a little pot and alcohol use among their children — until it escalates.

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"They stay stuck in that denial for so long that by the time (their kids are) in full-blown addiction — with opioids, Xanax — then they realize how serious it was," he said. "They just stay silent then someone dies. Then they want to talk about it."

Some local coroners say that opioid deaths in the Region appear to be declining, or leveling off, for the first time in years. Stepherson said his intervention companies lately have been getting more calls about people addicted to methamphetamine.

"Overdose deaths are substantially down in 2018," Lake County Coroner Merrilee Frey said. (Final totals for last year aren't yet available). "I believe that continued awareness and our efforts with addressing our most vulnerable population of those who are incarcerated in Lake County have saved the lives of many."

The Lake County Jail has offered Vivitrol, a long-acting shot that blocks the brain's opioid receptors, to inmates addicted to opioids. Porter County's jail does as well.

Amanda Morrison, program manager for Supporting Addiction Free Environments for Lake County, also credits naloxone, the opioid overdose-reversal drug that rescues hundreds of Northwest Indiana residents from deaths every year. Her agency sponsors training and distribution of naloxone.

In addition, the organization pays for prevention programs at schools, pouches that destroy unused prescription medications, and devices that allow police to more easily identify illegal substances. Morrison noted, however, that access to drug treatment is still lacking in the Region.

"We want to get ahead of this problem and we want to get ahead of the curve," she said. "It starts with prevention, we need our law enforcement, and we need more treatment."

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Health Reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.