The heroin epidemic has arrived in South Carolina. Now what do we do?

The heroin epidemic has arrived in South Carolina. Now what do we do?

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - "The moment I forget that heroin was the reason I lost everything to begin with is the moment when I'll go back," Tabitha Mullis, a recovering heroin addict, talks candidly about the daily struggle to beat addiction. "That is not a step I'm willing to take."

Mullis makes the choice every day not to return to the lifestyle that took everything from her. She blames her poor choices and heroin.

Nationwide, heroin use has increased among men and women, most age groups, and all income levels, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Not only are people using heroin, but they are also abusing other substances too, including cocaine and prescription opioid painkillers.

But is there a heroin problem in South Carolina?

"I'd say yes, there is a problem," said Columbia Police Department investigator Anthony Branham. "Anytime there's heroin in a community and the problems that are associated with heroin -- you've got a problem. If it's here at all, it's a problem."

Heroin does not discriminate. It doesn't matter if you've been an addict for years or it's your first time; whether you live in the suburbs or the inner city. If you have a criminal background or not; if you're on the honor roll or if you sit in a pulpit on Sunday mornings.

"I had to have it," Mullis describes her penchant for the drug. "I had to have it."

Mullis lives in Columbia. When we were first introduced to her she was sitting outside her home, handcuffed while CPD and SLED raided her home for drugs. That was in June 2015 when she arrested for possession of controlled substances. That was just the beginning of her downward spiral.

"It got pretty bad at one time. I was really bad. Near death," Mullis said. "Zero fat cells due to the heroin eating all my fat cells. [I was] down to about 95 pounds. Almost dead. It was a rough time."

Heroin, meth, and crack cocaine were her drugs of choice for about five months last year.

"I lost my job due to crack. I started using heroin to relieve back pain." Mullis said since she tested positive for drugs she wasn't prescribed any medication for the back pain. Once she went to the heroin, she didn't feel pain anymore.

"I felt nothing. Nothing. Literally," Mullis confessed. "I didn't feel pain. I didn't feel happy. I didn't feel sad. I just existed in the world. And I really didn't do that. I was a lump of coal actually."

The drug use, naturally, came with consequences. She was in and out of jail for five months straight from June through October 2015. Each time she bailed herself out of jail until in October she couldn't afford it anymore and lost everything. She said it was time for her to do her time and get clean.

"I was dancing with the devil," Mullis admits. "Heroin takes everything away. Everything. I lost my home. My children. My grand-babies. My husband. My dog. My everything."

Despite seeing her life and health deteriorate, she still craved and knew exactly where to get it.

"I knew where to go. What to do if I couldn't buy it. I knew how to make it -- not the heroin, [but other drugs]," Mullis said.  "I knew somebody [for heroin] that I could get it from. If that person didn't get it, they knew somebody or they knew somebody who knew somebody. So it was really easy for me to get. All over Columbia. Just depended on where I wanted to go and what type I wanted."

After her last stint in jail, Mullis got clean and reports she has been sober for one year this October.

She is fortunate to be in recovery and focusing on getting her life back on track but there are thousands, who, every year, continue to overdose on heroin and other opioids and many who died as a result.

"In 36 states in this country right now, heroin overdoses surpass motor vehicle accidents as the leading cause of death," said Jeremy Martin, Vice President of Treatment and Intervention for LRADAC, the state-sponsored addiction treatment and rehabilitation facility for Lexington and Richland Counties. "Thirty-six states. That's a majority of our country."

Up until last year, CPD narcotics agents were seizing large amounts of heroin until a similar but far more potent drug hit the streets.

"The problem we're seeing now is that users are thinking they're buying heroin when in fact we're seeing a large influx of the opioid that's referred to as fentanyl," Investigator Branham said.

Branham says fentanyl is between 50 and 100 times more powerful than heroin. He said the drugs are coming in from all over the world.

"It's through the smuggling routes that have been established for decades," Branham said. "Up through Mexico, Central America, Colombia and through Mexico to Texas and then dispersed through the United States."

As heroin use and other opioid use have increased, so have heroin-related deaths. Due to the rise, CPD officers are getting training on using Naloxone or Narcan -- shots officers or medics can administer to a patient to offset the effects of an opioid overdose

"As soon as you open it, it gives the officer step-by-step instructions on how to inject someone who's overdosing with the life-saving drugs to counteract the overdose," Branham said.

In Lexington County, Sheriff Jay Koon is also seeing a rise in the number of heroin-related arrests.

"It's growing. It's growing throughout the Midlands. We've seen some spikes in other areas of the state. We're definitely getting our fair share," said Sheriff Koon.

In 2010, Lexington County narcotics agents arrested four people. That number more than doubled by 2013 to nine people. In 2014 and so far in 2016 agents arrested 10 people for heroin.

"It's really going to take the whole community to get around this thing." Sheriff Koon said. "Once some gets addicted to it, it's a disease and it's a fight for their life."

Martin is seeing the increase translate into more patients seeking treatment for opioid abuse.

"It's not just the drug use -- it's the lingering effects and what's there for the rest of that person's life and for some people they're affected for the rest of their lives," said Martin.

And the struggle of relapses are commonplace because recovery is a journey.

"We have realized over a number of years of study and research long-term opioid use changes the brain," Martin said. "It changes the opioid receptors in the brain so individuals who stop using those opioids still have the cravings because the brain has been altered. And the brain is a wonderful thing and repairs itself but it takes time."

"I think the closer that we can get to treating it like a disease and having equality between how we treat those diseases, the more people who have those diseases will seek treatment and hopefully have better outcomes," Martin said.

"If you get down far like I did and you lose everything. You know, it's a big struggle. You struggle every day to stay away from it because you're fighting everyday to regain what you lost."

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, there is help. Contact LRADAC at (803) 726-9300.

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