EATON — Preble County continues to see a rise in heroin usage and has begun seeing issues with fentanyl, an even deadlier drug that is seeping into the heroin market and adding to the death toll.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opiate similar to morphine but more powerful, typically used for treatment in patients with severe or chronic pain, or in pain management after surgery. Cities all over the state are seeing outbreaks, and the drug made headlines recently when music legend Prince died from a self-administered fentanyl overdose.
Legal versions of fentanyl are sold medically, but drug dealers are most commonly selling a homemade version manufactured in illegal labs outside the U.S.
“I think a small percentage of addicts are people who may have turned to heroin because of an addiction to pain pills, maybe from an injury of some sort, and they’ve become addicted to that and reached a point where the pain pills don’t work for them anymore,” Preble County Sheriff Michael Simpson said. “Some of it is people who chose to do drugs early. Typically, it starts early — alcohol, marijuana, and it goes upward.”
“Heroin is very cheap,” he said in explanation of its widespread presence. “For $30, you might be able to get yourself two or three caps of heroin. People shoot it up, and it’s extremely, extremely addictive. Sometimes fentanyl is mixed in with that heroin. Dealers are adding it into the heroin sometimes and not telling the buyers. It’s highly addictive and extremely intense. Maybe you get some heroin that’s laced with fentanyl, and that heroin now becomes what’s known as a ‘hot dose.’ People inject with that and the dose is so intense that it’s killing people virtually immediately.”
The county has seen a string of daytime burglaries in recent months, which the sheriff believes to be drug related.
“When we talk to the people we charge with property crime offenses,” said Sheriff Simpson, “most of them are drug addicted, especially to heroin. Typically, you don’t have guys going out to commit residential burglaries so they can go buy a bag of weed. It’s because they need this drug so badly that they have to steal to be able to buy it. We’re working on a bunch of these cases now, and I expect when we catch these people who are responsible — and we will — we’ll find that most likely heroin will be involved.”
The county also struggles with widespread methampetamine addiction. Sheriff Simpson estimates that 60 percent or more of the county jail’s occupants are in for drug related crimes. This has, in particular, driven a rise in the numbers of female arrests and convictions.
“We began occupying this jail 22 years ago, in fall of 1994,” he said, “and we have the capacity to house 10 females here. Today, we have 18. I have five in Mercer County, we have 13 here, and I just took three to prison. We’re still over capacity. For the first time in 22 years, the county is spending money each month to house female inmates in Mercer County jail, and I never would’ve predicted that. A majority of it is drug-related crimes, probation violations due to purchasing or using drugs, even just awaiting beds at treatment facilities.”
Many are not aware that sometimes the court orders the jail to hold inmates until space becomes available in a treatment center, especially in the case of probation violations. The courts sometimes work with the sheriff’s office to keep inmates up to 14 days to keep them eligible for a shot of Vivitrol, a drug that can prevent relapses in drug or alcohol abuse. This allows time to transfer inmates into programs in an effort to keep them clean.
However, the sheriff’s office sees frequent examples of convicts released after drug offenses who violate probation or commit another crime and cycle back into the corrections system.
Sheriff Simpson stressed prevention on the home front. “You’ve got to hit it from several fronts,” he said. “It starts with parenting and decision making when these kids are small, at the school level. A good, solid home life, learning right and wrong. I think more people need to get involved with church activities. If we get them at that early point, then when they’re adults, they have a better ability to ask themselves, ‘Who should my friends be? What activities should I be involved in?’ ‘Am I hanging with the right people?’ ‘Do I care about myself?’ ‘What do I want to do with my life?’”
Last week, the Obama administration announced plans for a national program in which Ohio would receive an estimated $45 million over the course of two years to fight the opioid epidemic as part of a $1.1 billion proposal to expand access to drug treatment nationwide.
“The president has made addressing this epidemic a key priority of his administration,” said federal drug czar Michael Botticelli in a national conference call last week. “Everyone who seeks treatment for an opioid disorder should be able to access it.”
The plan must still be approved by Congress, and based its financial estimates on the severity of the drug problem state by state. Over 12,000 Ohio residents have died from heroin overdoses since 2002; the state carries the nation’s fifth highest rate of overdose deaths, which rates as more than double the national average. Ohio’s $45 million received under the plan would be the fifth highest in the U.S., after Pennsylvania’s $46 million, Florida’s $47 million, Texas’ $48 million, and California’s $78 million.
“We try to make sure that the addiction services are there for people who want help,” Sheriff Simpson said of countywide efforts. “We have to hit it from all angles. We’re not going to be able to arrest our way out of this problem. But at the same time, that’s a component of what we’re doing, because there are a lot of people being victimized out there.”
Reach Duante Beddingfield at 937-683-4061 or on Twitter @duanteb_RH.