WKYT Investigates: heroin in the suburbs

LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - In Fayette County, Coroner Gary Ginn says he didn't see heroin until 2007. There was one overdose death that year. Since then, though, the number of overdose deaths has been on a steep rise. In 2011, there were five heroin deaths investigated by the coroner's office. In 2012, the number jumped to 22. And in 2013, the deaths doubled to 44. So far this year, there have been 17 confirmed heroin overdose deaths in Lexington.

"Heroin has replaced the pill problem," said Lexington Public Safety Commissioner Clay Mason. Mason launched a task force in early 2013 aimed at tackling the heroin epidemic from all sides. "We're trying to get a good handle on what we're seeing and then how to address it from all aspects."

Mason said what makes heroin hard to combat is it's ability to cross social and economic barriers. "Middle class, upper-middle class, educated people, all walks of like are getting hit by heroin right now."

Alex Elswick grew up in an upscale Lexington home. He went to private schools and ended up playing baseball for Centre College. College life, Alex said, started a love of marijuana which eventually led to Oxycodone. "It just got really bad, really fast," Alex said. "I started using everyday. I had probably a $100 to $150 a day habit."

Alex's parents took him to rehab, but they dealt with one relapse after another. Eventually, Alex said pills were hard to come by and heroin was his answer. "I tried it for the first time and it did exactly what I needed it to do and for one-sixth the price," he said. "I immediately started shooting heroin intravenously."

Alex said his "rock bottom" came soon after. And rehab finally worked. He said he is now eight months clean and sober. He said he's in a good place now, however, how he got to this place is an issue his mother said needs clarity. "I think for people that are genetically wired, when they find that drug, they are going to go down and we have to have a pathway for when that happens," said Shelley Elswick. Shelley said there needs to be more resources for families struggling with addiction, and ways to reach those resources. "I don't know how you know what's available. I don't know how you know where to go next."

Those resources are what Mason's heroin task force are working to gather. "it's got to be a comprehensive approach," Mason said. Because, he said, the heroin epidemic is complex, growing, and hiding in suburbs where you may least expect.

"Yes, the awkwardness, the stigma is out there," Shelley said. "Am I embarrassed of my son? No, I'm proud of him."

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