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This city is taking a new approach to fighting the opioid crisis

Posted at 5:45 PM, Jul 30, 2019

America has a deadly addiction to opioids, and Aimee Sandefur has both the emotional and physical scars to prove it.

“I got them right there,” she says, pointing to track marks on her arm. “I have abscess. That was an abscess where they had to cut my arm open.”

Sandefur has overdosed dozens of times, saying she’s lucky to be alive.

“I overdosed 35 times, and by the grace of God I’m clean and sober now,” she says. “I didn’t think I was going to make it.”

In Dayton, Ohio, local leaders are calling opioid and heroin abuse a national epidemic.

“I described it then as I do now as a mass fatality event,” says Montgomery County Coroner Dr. Kent Harshbarger.

Dr. Harshbarger says in 2017, there were so many opioid-related deaths that his morgue ran out space to the store all the dead bodies.

“Our numbers were astronomical,” he says. “We ended up with about 566 overdose deaths in 2017. But we’re a regional center, so we probably ended with 1,400 overdose deaths that we handle in 2017.”

During that time, Dr. Harshbarger says up to 75 percent of all the cases his team handled were overdoses. Now, that number is down to 40 percent.

“Oh my God. America has a huge problem with opioids,” says Helen Jones-Kelley, executive director of the Montgomery County Alcohol, Drug Dddiction & Mental Health Services. “Even though we’re seeing some of the numbers begin to drop, it hasn’t decreased the overall problem by any stretch.”

Jones-Kelley says despite a decrease in overdoses people are still using and still dying from these drugs. In an attempt to keep users alive, her team has now changed its approach.

“Before we used to just turn our heads. Now, we get involved,” she says. “We’re giving people information, so hopefully they won’t use but if they do, they use in a way that they won’t die.”

Also helping to save more lives is the access to more NARCAN for more people.

Some, however, say saving an addict only gives them another chance to do more drugs.

“It’s a drug that, unfortunately, once it gets you it gets you,” says former opioid-turned-heroin user Daniel Duncan.

After his prescription of pills ran out, Duncan turned to the streets to fill the void.

“A lot of people--when they found out or I told them--they were like, “Not you, man. You’re black,’” he says. “It doesn’t discriminate.”

After years of lying and stealing to feed his fix, Duncan was finally able to kick his opioid addiction, but only after serving time in jail.

“I say there is hope. Don’t give up. Don’t give up at all,” he says. “You deserve much more than that. You’re better than that. It can be done.”

While some can overcome their drug dependencies, others say they lost things that they can never get back.

“My mom came beating on my door, and I’m like, ‘Mom, I don’t have no crack,’” Sandefur says. “And she’s like, ‘I know you have crack’ and I’m like, ‘Mom, I don’t have no crack; I have heroin.’”

Sandefur says she unintentionally gave her mom a lethal dose of heroin.

“Next thing you know I hear screaming downstairs, and my mom is lying on the living room floor blue in the face dead,” she says.

Since her mother’s death, Sandefur says she hasn’t used drugs but that she ended her addiction too late.

“I wish my mom was still here,” she says.