Land of the living dead

Published by The Mail on Sunday (13th August, 2017)

The black jeep had slammed into a parked saloon in a quiet suburban street, just beside a house having a yard sale. Inside were two middle-aged people who looked like corpses.

Their eyes were closed, their mouths wide open, their bodies slumped together in deathly embrace. The man’s head was tilted backwards while the woman at the wheel lay across his shoulder. A syringe lay between her legs, and another was on the dashboard.

It was a grotesque scene. A couple of drug addicts so desperate to get their fix that they had injected right outside their dealer’s house – and were then hit instantly by the effects of a deadly new synthetic opioid many times more powerful than heroin that is flooding the streets of America.

The police swung into action. Such scenes are wearily familiar in the country’s overdose capital. ‘C’mon girl,’ said one officer as he syringed Narcan – a drug that counters opioids – into the slumped woman’s nose. ‘Here she comes. Wake up, little Suzy.’

Her eyes opened and she looked at me. ‘What’s going on?’ she whispered. You could almost see her brain start to function. Then came panic as she recognised police, followed by terror when she saw her partner laid out on the verge where he had been dragged by officers.

It was an astonishing scene: from near-death to walking – and even asking for her purse – in less than five minutes.

But her 40-year-old partner was less lucky: he was rushed to hospital after 12 shots of Narcan failed to revive him, a common occurrence as this toxic new tide of opioids – drugs derived from opium and now more commonly man-made versions – takes a grip.

Witnesses said another passenger ran from the crash scene. ‘They’ll find her dead tomorrow,’ said deputy sheriff Andy Teague after searching nearby streets. ‘Or maybe she’ll access an empty house, overdose there and they won’t find her body for six months.’

Such incidents are all too familiar in Dayton, Ohio. For this town, celebrated as the home of the Wright Brothers and birthplace of aviation, is now the epicentre of a horrific epidemic ripping apart families and communities.

The statistics are extraordinary. Last year there were at least an estimated 59,000 drug deaths across America – a toll greater than those from guns, car crashes or AIDS at the peak of its epidemic. This drains $80billion from the economy.

Most casualties are white, male and middle-aged; many are middle-class. Overdoses are already the biggest killer of Americans under 50.

Yet this year the number of dead could double as the frighteningly strong man-made drugs flood the market – just as they are in Britain, where they have also started to kill scores of users.

First came fentanyl, which is 50 times stronger than heroin, followed by carfentanil, which is used to tranquillise elephants and is 10,000 times more potent than morphine. Just a single grain can kill.

Now an array of new opioids made in Chinese and Mexican laboratories are arriving on the streets. One estimate predicts 650,000 Americans will die after taking these drugs in a decade – more than the population of central Manchester.

Last week President Donald Trump bowed to pressure and declared a national emergency, ensuring extra resources on the front line.

Montgomery County in Ohio, which includes Dayton, is currently thought to have highest rates of deadly overdoses in America. It is expecting 800 drug deaths this year – more than triple its 2015 tally. The 420 already logged easily exceeds last year’s total.

Fatalities include an airline pilot and his wife, babies who have simply touched the drugs, infants given them by addicts, teenagers and students, parents and pensioners. Dealers have also died from toxic inhalation while chopping up supplies. And three nurses had to be given Narcan after losing consciousness when treating an overdose patient on Thursday,

As I discovered during my visit to Dayton, this cruel and corrosive epidemic is devastating society in what was once a prosperous manufacturing town and home to a major car plant. And it has alarming consequences for the future.

‘This is sucking us dry,’ said Phil Plummer, the Dayton-born sheriff of Montgomery County. ‘The police are overwhelmed, the courts are backlogged, the jails are overflowing, the coroner has run out of room – and it is getting worse.

‘I spoke to a girl in jail who was about 21 and her mum put a needle in her aged 14. Now her mum is dead and the girl has a bad habit. It’s incredible to see this in Dayton.’

I went on patrol with his colleague Andy Teague, who told me that six years ago he had never seen a heroin overdose. In contrast, there were 12 overdoses on his patch during our four hours together, highlighting the explosive nature of this tragedy.

‘You are never far from opioids in this town,’ he told me after dealing with the car-crash couple. ‘That is an everyday occurrence now. We are in a war because the drug is taking lives, destroying families, and wrecking communities.’

Soon after setting off, we stopped at a burned-out house where we disturbed a woman injecting her fix. Teague went in first, holding his handgun with a torch attached in front of him. Amid the mess we instantly saw drug paraphernalia.

On a table was a big pile of crystal meth, enough for hundreds of hits. There was also a syringe filled with liquid, a rubber tube for a tourniquet, and opioid prescription pills scattered across the floor.

‘I would guess they have just stolen that meth since there is so much. I’ve never seen that much lying around in one place outside a bust,’ said Teague.

Dealers and users often mix opioids with drugs such as crystal meth and cocaine. Police told me that two free hits of these drugs are sometimes given away with marijuana to snare new customers; alternatively, it gets tossed though open car windows at petrol stations as a promotional tool.

Addicts usually do not have a clue what they are buying: heroin, fentanyl or worse. Astonishingly, such is their desire to ‘chase the dragon’ of deeper highs, dealers find deaths among their clientele attract new buyers since they demonstrate stronger drugs on sale.

There is so much around it sells for just $5 a hit. Part of the problem is Dayton’s superb transport links that once led to it being called ‘the crossroads of America’ but now create an efficient distribution hub for dealers.

But for all their efforts, police seize only an estimated three per cent of drugs. ‘We’ve taken 70 lb of fentanyl off the streets this year and affected the trade hardly at all,’ said Plummer. ‘The cartels make more than Walmart yet we can’t afford a new police car.’

In the struggling suburb of Drexel, we met Wanda, a grandmother claiming to be clean after more than a decade of drug abuse. ‘I’ve seen so many people die,’ she said. ‘I got sick of sticking needles in myself, of crying every day. My kids were begging me to stop.’

She said she was terrified of fentanyl, which was first developed in the 1960s as an anaesthetic but is now snorted, smoked or injected by addicts. ‘I’ve never seen a drug do what this one can do,’ she added. ‘It’s real bad – it is tearing people apart. I’m scared – I feel death all around me.’

I asked how many of her immediate neighbours used opioids. She counted the handful of houses, then told me eight of them. Back in the patrol car, Teague queried if Wanda had really quit, not least because she was still in bed at 1.45pm.

Yet while confessing to frustrations of constantly reviving addicts, even being met with fury for ruining their high, Teague believes police must keep responding.

‘Every life matters,’ he said. ‘And sure, maybe I’ll respond to someone 40 times in six months – but it might be that 40th time that makes them change their way of life.’

At Dayton’s Children’s Hospital, one or two infants under five are rushed in every week needing treatment for opioid overdoses. Some of the drugs are ingested accidentally, others deliberately given by adults. Hundreds of babies are being born as addicts.

‘It is alarming because there are so many ways that this is detrimental to their health,’ said paediatrician Kelly Liker. This includes a greater chance of high-risk behaviour in adulthood, threatening to continue the cycle of despair and degradation.

Foster-care systems are being swamped, with so many children orphaned or taken from addicted parents. State officials also told me there was emerging evidence of an upsurge in behavioural problems in schools from children raised in chaotic homes.

At the coroner’s office, staff scan the Dark Web to detect newly designed drugs. ‘It usually takes about a month and a half before we start seeing the deaths [from the new drug],’ said county coroner Kent Harshbarger.

His team had just confirmed the first fatality from one new variant. Harshbarger took me into his morgue, filled with racks of bodies in bags and the stench of death. ‘If this was a terror attack every resource on the planet would be thrown at what is happening,’ he said.

So what caused this tragic tsunami of destroyed lives? It is rooted in pharmaceutical firms pushing opioids on prescription as pain relief to millions of people.

As demand grew, unscrupulous doctors opened ‘pill mills’ to churn out prescriptions, the drugs often sold on illegally. When states finally cracked down, addicts turned to cheaper heroin that Mexican gangs were flooding on to the streets of small-town America.

Now there is a new wave of younger addicts moving almost straight on to opioids since the drugs have lost their stigma.

Some local officials also argue that people started self-medicating in distressed communities where unemployment is high and wages are low. Perhaps it is significant that Montgomery Country switched from almost three decades of voting Democrat to backing Donald Trump last year.

Yet the crisis has spiralled so far out of control that some firms cannot find skilled staff clean enough to work with machinery.

Angelia Erbaugh, president of the Dayton Region Manufacturers Association, told me that three-quarters of applicants potentially suitable for manufacturing jobs fail drug tests.

‘Every employer says the same,’ she said. ‘One told me last week that he walked outside at lunchtime and a temporary employee was shooting up in her car, on her first day at work.’

The profits from the drugs are huge: fentanyl costing $2,000 from China can sell on Ohio’s streets for $2 million. ‘It’s a great business model,’ said Mike DeWine, the Ohio Attorney General. ‘You get someone hooked for $10.’

But there is a fightback. States such as Ohio are suing the pushers in pinstripe suits, communities are banding together and families are setting up self-help groups.

I went to an impressive gathering of 110 people, set up by a mother whose daughter used heroin. There I met Justin Schmitt, an athletic-looking 33-year- old who was attending with his mother. Yet at the start of this year he was taking heroin six times a day and was almost six stones lighter.

Schmitt told me he had blown $60,000 on the drug and had seen nine friends from school go to the grave early. He added: ‘I finally gave it up because I could not live my life that way any longer. My son could not even look at me.’

In Kettering, a professional suburb of Dayton that looks like a Hollywood cliche of Middle America with its smart houses, neat lawns and fluttering flags, the number of opioid deaths is set to double this year.

‘This is not just about an unemployed, homeless person shooting up in an alleyway. There are kids in blue blazers, people you meet here in the street,’ said the mayor, Don Patterson. ‘We need to help them and treat them.’

He admitted that communities such as Kettering had struggled to come to terms with the terrifying scale and speed of this crisis – then issued a chilling warning to other nations. ‘No one is safe,’ he said. ‘Everybody had better get ready for this because it is coming to you.’

Police in Britain have just revealed 60 deaths in eight months from fentanyl – fewer than the number dying each month in this blighted county in Ohio. Yet Dayton offers a grim warning: this lethal epidemic can explode from nothing with devastating consequences.

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