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Fighting the heroin epidemic with help from the past

WRGT

(WKEF/WRGT) - Elizabeth Eckert is like a growing number of Miami Valley moms, victimized by a drug she’s never used.

Eckert’s son, Jeffrey “Jae” Cline died in April 2014 of a heroin overdose.

"You don't know what it is. You're playing Russian roulette every time you do heroin,” she said.

Eckert said for years Jeffrey struggled to try and beat his addiction. He was in and out rehab several times.

"He hated this drug. He hated being on it. it made him sick but, you have to do it so you're not sick. Then you hate yourself for it,” explains Eckert. “His dream was to stay off of it permanently and to have a life, but it consumed him."

Eckert said Jeffrey's autopsy revealed a long list of illegal drugs in his system, including fentanyl. Fentanyl is an opiate that is 30-50 times more powerful than heroin.

Montgomery County Coroner Dr. Kent Harshbarger tells FOX45 the first time his office came across fentanyl was in 2012. Now, he says it's in the majority of their overdose cases. The problem is, the make-up is constantly changing and that can make fentanyl difficult to detect.

"By changing the chemical structure a little bit, you can fool so to speak, our equipment and we don't see it unless we are specifically looking for it,” said Dr. Harshbarger.

The Montgomery County Coroner's Office is now teaming up with Wright State University. Through a grant, they're now going back and re-opening nearly 500 overdose and undetermined death cases from 2015 to 2016.

"The purpose being to try to figure out what public information was out there at the time, in the streets and the police departments, so we can better design testing protocols in the future,” said Dr. Harshbarger. “That way we can try to get ahead of what products are hitting our streets, so our testing protocols are already developed."

While some may argue it's a waste of time and resources, Dr. Harshbarger believes the old cases could hold important information. "I think it helps in the sense that DEA, law enforcement, public health. has an idea of what is on the streets and then we can track where its coming from.”

He points to the recent ban of carfentanil in China and says it's been months since the drug was found in any local cases. The research will also be used for education and community outreach, so we may finally get a grip.

While researchers are hopeful the past may hold the key to combating the heroin epidemic, for those like Eckert, it will always be a painful place. "I still cry every day, although I accepted it and no one should have to go through the pain, it tears your families apart. It didn't have to end like this. It really shouldn't have to.”

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