A powerful high, a cheap price and a steady addiction are what pulled recovering addict Michael Rito into the thick of heroin use several years ago.
Rito is a poster child of the “it can happen to anyone” claims about drug use, particularly heroin use, as Baton Rouge health professionals try to spread awareness of the drug’s deadly effects. A former collegiate athlete, Rito said he started dealing drugs to make money and then started using them, as well.
He sat in the audience Thursday when East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner Dr. Beau Clark told a group of people at Capital Area Human Services that Baton Rouge is on track to see heroin deaths reach record numbers this year. Rito and several other men in his rehab program listened to Clark and others lay out a new campaign to try to prevent more people in the area from slipping into addiction.
The capital city has already confirmed 24 heroin-related deaths in 2015, and three more are pending from the past 10 days. Shane Evans, the Coroner’s Office chief of investigations, said he has seen two young women die from heroin overdoses in the past three days.
The first was in a treatment facility where someone snuck in heroin and gave it to her. The other woman was pregnant.
Heroin deaths in Baton Rouge rose dramatically between 2012 and 2013, going from five deaths the first year to 35 deaths the second. Clark attributed it to an influx of heroin dealers coming to Louisiana because it had weaker penalties for heroin dealing and more people looking for heroin on the streets because it became more difficult to get a prescription for opiate pain medications from a doctor. That difficulty was the result of new a monitoring program that allowed doctors to see what prescriptions a patient was getting from another doctor.
Heroin deaths dipped slightly last year but are already high for 2015. Clark said he is unsure why Baton Rouge experienced the decline in heroin deaths last year. Heroin deaths, he added, tend to be more common during autumn.
Rito, who is from New Orleans but is being treated for the narcotic suboxone in a Baton Rouge rehab center, said he is glad more information is being put out about the drugs. But he said the messages mainly show young adult males as the ones who are overdosing while at home.
He said he has seen people from all walks of life who have used heroin.
Heroin gave Rito a high so powerful that he said he was willing to shell out $200 to $300 a day to keep getting it. It was still cheaper than other drugs that gave him a weaker high and lasted for shorter time periods.
“I’ve known doctors that I’ve used with, lawyers, every type (of person),” he said.
The new campaign is meant to address heroin and synthetic marijuana, which is sometimes called mojo or spice and is also deadly. The main messages are “mojo is poison and heroin is deadly,” along with the Coroner’s Office saying “don’t let this be your last ride.”
The videos will be shown at schools, and posters will be distributed to anyone who wants them. Capital Area Human Services is also putting their messaging on billboards.
Rito said he has not used heroin for three years. But he slipped with his use of suboxone, which is actually used to treat opiate addictions, and he entered rehab again earlier this month.
Suboxone is another drug that Rito said is already a problem on the streets. He expects there to be future efforts to curb its use, just like the efforts for heroin and synthetic marijuana.
“It’s been around for seven years. I just don’t understand why it’s not talked about yet,” he said.
While doctors know the deadliness and danger of heroin, synthetic marijuana continues to be uncharted territory. Every time the U.S. Food and Drug Administration bans a version of it, chemists alter the drug’s makeup to make it legal again, Clark said.
Those constant changes mean doctors do not know what side effects synthetic marijuana is capable of causing, he said, nor do they know if synthetic marijuana damage will be permanent. Baton Rouge has had three synthetic marijuana deaths this year, and Clark said there may have been more, but they are difficult to prove because of the drug’s different makeups.
Clark described mojo users — if they did not die — as exhibiting signs of schizophrenia and other mental health issues.
Rito said he experimented with synthetic marijuana before, and he has seen similar side effects on friends and people he knows.
“It’s very schizophrenic, very paranoid, very scattered,” he said.
Rito offered hope for anyone who is struggling with addiction, saying they need more than facts; they also need emotional support. He said he has found that at the Capital Area Recovery Program.
“Everybody can recover,” he said.