Why you should care

Because nobody is left untouched by the opioid epidemic.

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Cars crowd the parking lot outside the Life Enrichment Center in Dayton, Ohio. Inside, a hundred people sprawl around tables, snacking on veggie straws and cookies.

Almost everyone gathered at the Families of Addicts meeting is white, but otherwise it’s a diverse group: toddlers, teenagers, parents; graying and blond, brunette and pink-haired. They speak. Mr. 104-Days-Clean, who does it for his girlfriend. The mother supporting her 38-year-old son, who has overdosed five times but is recovering. The foster kid who is grateful that his mother is gone, “overdosed from a life of abusement,” he says, sitting next to his foster mother, who has since shown him a better life. Despite the different tales of how they got here, everyone shares one common trait: creased, worn eyes. This is a city of tired eyes.

Last year Ohio had the nation’s highest number of overdose deaths related to heroin and opioids. And according to the Montgomery County coroner’s office:

Dayton had 355 overdose deaths in 2016, leading to the highest rate among the state’s major cities.

The stats fit the anecdotal evidence. In February, Dayton coroners reported that they were running out of room for bodies left in the wake of the opioid crisis. It was declared the most drugged-out city in America – with more than 50 deaths per 100,000 people in a single year in an analysis by ArrestRecords.com using state and federal data from 2014. For Ohio, though, the Gem City is merely the standard-bearer for a statewide problem: Cincinnati (sixth) and Toledo (10th) also made the inauspicious list released last fall.

What makes Dayton an epicenter for opioids? High unemployment, the decline of manufacturing and geography all are factors, policy experts say. While the rest of the nation is gripped in the throes of a heroin problem, Ohio has moved on to darker and more powerful drugs. First, fentanyl, then carfentanil and — now that addicts have developed a tolerance even for elephant tranquilizers — a drug nicknamed “gray death” that authorities warn can kill with a single dose and is unsafe to merely touch. The synthetic mix of three opiates is crafted on the Pacific coast of Mexico, passes through El Paso, Texas, and follows Interstate 75 up to … Dayton, a natural trading post for the rest of the Midwest and Northeast.

“We no longer have a heroin epidemic in the state of Ohio,” says state Rep. Robert Sprague, a leader on laws trying to stem the body count. “We have a fentanyl epidemic.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the opioid-related death rate in Dayton. In 2014 it was more than 50 opioid-related deaths per 100,000.

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