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MAGNOLIA -- Sarah Smith, the director of Ohio's Start Talking! initiative, delivered a sobering message to an intimate gathering inside Sandy Valley High School's performing arts hall.
"This is a scary time," Smith said. "This is a scary time to be a parent. This is a scary time to be a child growing up."
Smith is working with Gov. John Kasich and First Lady Karen Kasich's youth drug prevention program. She was one of the speakers at an event in collaboration with the Sandy Valley Drug Awareness Initiative on Feb. 21 to start conversations locally about the current opiate crisis.
Smith provided a number of statistics. Among the most notable was that Ohio has seen more than a 400 percent increase in the number of people lost to drug abuse since the 1990s. Opiate overdoses have also surpassed car crashes as the leading cause of death in the state.
"What we are seeing from a state-wide perspective is these deaths are being driven by heroin use, prescription pain pill use and last year by fetanyl use," Smith said.
Smith noted a lot of parents ask why heroin and prescriptions are talked about on a similar level.
"At a chemical level, prescription pain pills are nearly same as heroin you'll find on street," she said.
She explained users transition from prescriptions to heroin for a number of reasons including supply and demand, economics and cost of pills.
David Fischer, the superintendent of Sandy Valley Local Schools, cautioned how dangerous the heroin problem has become.
"Heroin does not discriminate," he said. "It has affected many families, families you wouldn't think it would affect. It's at crisis proportion."
Smith said a "very aggressive and comprehensive approach" has been taken to combat the problem since Kasich took office. She then added, "We know the fight is far from over."
"One of my mentors in life told me prevention is kind of like a leaky faucet," Smith said. "Sometimes we get so busy mopping up the floor that we forget to turn off the faucet. Not in the state of Ohio. We're committed to prevention, and we're committed to making sure that our parents, our teachers, our community leaders have the tools that they need."
A lot of parents, Smith explained, are waiting until their kids are going off to prom night or to college before having a conversation. She said kids are 50 percent less likely to start using drugs if they have conversations early on.
Smith additionally provided three ways that people can safeguard their homes including monitoring medication, securing medication and disposing of unused medication.
The audience later heard from Nick Bianco, a recovering addict, who shared his story of how he became addicted to opiates starting in high school.
He said he used Tussionex, a prescription used for bronchitis or coughing. He spent 15 years of addiction in and out of jail and treatment centers.
"I could see that this was tearing me up, and it was tearing everyone around me, but I couldn't stop," Bianco said. "When I would stop, even though I'd have the best of intentions to remain clean and sober, after a short period of time I would find myself back where I started or worse."
Bianco now runs sober homes in Wadsworth and has helped more than 200 people. He explained how big the opiate problem has become.
"I've traveled through a good percentage of this country in my time of recovery," he said, "and I have not seen anywhere else that is even close to the level of the epidemic that we are dealing with right here in Ohio."
Bianco added this isn't the same drug problems that were happening in the 1980s and 1990s. He said this crisis is "taking people out" young and fast.
"Let's come together as a community," Bianco said. "Let's come together with the kids and have these real life conversations, and let's try to do something to curb this thing."