Heroin deaths on the rise in the state, across the country

Deaths due to drug overdoses in South Carolina were up more than 57 percent last year

By Daniel J. Gross
Herald-Journal of Spartanburg

SPARTANBURG, S.C. (AP) — Miranda Gilbert always hoped her fiance would get better.

But despite 10 weeks of rehab and several months of sobriety, Zachary Wenk couldn’t get the better of his heroin addiction.

The 30-year-old Spartanburg man died Nov. 19 of an overdose inside his home.

“He always made everybody laugh. ... He was just so much fun to be around,” Gilbert said.

Wenk’s death is one of a growing number across the country linked to drug overdoses. Since 2010, heroin-related overdoses have more than quadrupled in the United States, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In South Carolina alone, heroin deaths were up 57.1 percent from 2014-2015, according to the CDC.

Wenk’s toxicology report is still being completed, but there have already been five other fatal heroin overdoses in Spartanburg County this year, said Spartanburg County Coroner Rusty Clevenger. There was just one fatal heroin overdose in 2015.

Nationally, heroin overdose death rates increased by 26 percent from 2013 to 2014, according to the CDC data.

Gilbert, who is still struggling to cope with the loss, has channeled her grief into action by planning a candlelight vigil to remember overdose victims and raise awareness about drug addiction.

The event is planned for Jan. 8 at Cleveland Park.

“I want people to understand how big of a problem drug addiction is here,” Gilbert said.

Before Wenk’s death, Gilbert never knew the extent of his addiction. He never used around her or kept paraphernalia with him. The track marks on his arms he would explain as scratches from his dog, Slash.

“He told me he didn’t do it anymore,” she said. “I could tell he was still doing it. . I was always afraid that his body just couldn’t handle it anymore.”

He worked at Mellow Mushroom in downtown Spartanburg, Gilbert said, and never gave the impression that anything was wrong. The only way she could tell he was high was when his eyes appeared different and his usual boisterous laugh was softer and slower.

He had a glowing personality with an infectious sense of humor, something that drew Gilbert to him during the two years they were together.

“This is really the only grief that I’ve had to deal with. I don’t know what is the right way to feel,” she said. “I feel like it’s getting harder. Maybe because my birthday is coming up and it’s around Christmas. I feel like he should be here.”

Gilbert said Sheriff Chuck Wright has been invited to speak at the vigil, along with a pastor from a Gaffney church who dealt with drug addiction earlier in his life.

She said names of overdose victims in Spartanburg County will be read during the vigil.

The Forrester Center for Behavioral Health holds treatment programs and counseling sessions for those recovering from drug addiction.

Between Nov. 1, 2015, to Nov. 30, 52 individuals identified heroin as the primary, secondary or tertiary reason for seeking treatment, said Joe Pinilla, the director of prevention services at the Forrester Center.

There were 204 additional individuals that identified “other opioids” as the reason for seeking treatment.

In terms of enforcement, the Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Office has arrested seven people so far this year on heroin possession or heroin trafficking charges. There were nine arrests in 2015 and just one in 2014, according to data from the Sheriff’s Office.

The Spartanburg Police Depart­ment made 23 heroin possession-related arrests in 2015 and 19 in 2014.

Clevenger said awareness and education is the key to helping more users get treatment.

He said many incidents involve heroin that’s been laced with other drugs such as fentanyl, an opioid that’s 20 times more potent than heroin, and users don’t know what they’re taking.

Six overdose deaths were attributed to fentanyl so far this year, and there were 12 fentanyl-related overdose deaths last year, Clevenger said.

“The drug user culture is living on the edge anyway. If we can get them to seek counseling, the info is passed on,” Clevenger said. “I have been to the jail and taught in inmate classes on the dangers associated now with heroin use.”