Local government works to prevent heroin-related deaths

Headshot of Kathleen Clyde, Portage County Commissioner.

Samantha Ickes

Heroin takes hold of its victims and grips onto them, making recovery a long and difficult process. It continues to be largely unregulated, and — though it remains illegal — its number of victims climbs each year. 

In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported more than 10,500 people who died from heroin overdoses. Between 2002 and 2013, the amount of heroin-related deaths was reported as nearly quadrupling. 

State Representative Kathleen Clyde said legislators have passed two primary bills in the last few years in an effort to reduce the number of deaths: House Bill 110 and House Bill 4.

House Bill 110, dubbed the “911 Good Samaritan” law, grants immunity to the 911 caller and victim from being arrested, charged, penalized or convicted for minor drug possession.

Gov. John Kasich signed the bill in June, and it took effect in September. Ohio was the 38th state, plus the District of Columbia, to adopt the bill.

“If a person overdoses and somebody calls for help, it protects that person who calls for help,” Clyde said. “Usually people are not charged as aggressively for just using — it’s more trafficking we’re concerned with.”

Ohio passed House Bill 4 last year, which allows police officers and residents to dispense naloxone, a drug that temporarily reverses the effects of a heroin overdose. Immediate medical attention must follow up the administration of the drug.

Clyde said the bill made naloxone available statewide. Portage County residents can take classes on how to recognize signs of an opioid overdose and how to administer the naloxone through Project DAWN, which stands for “Deaths Avoided With Naloxone.”

Portage County Mental Health and Recovery Board, located at 155 East Main St. in Kent, partnered with Project DAWN to make naloxone available in the county.

Kasich also supported the initiation, and today naloxone is available in 79 of Ohio’s 88 counties and at more than 1,000 pharmacies statewide.

Kasich said the state has been working for six years to develop a comprehensive plan of action to prevent the spread of heroin use. His approach to this crisis involves four pillars: treatment, prevention, education and tougher law enforcement that targets drug traffickers and dealers.

Local law enforcement officials within Portage County hope to begin targeting heroin dealers and holding them accountable for deaths of their buyers.

Prosecutor Victor Vigluicci said in an interview with the Aurora Advocate that dealers bear responsibility because of the rising levels of fentanyl found in the heroin.

Viglucci argued the addicts have no idea what they’re putting in their bodies because the buyer cannot detect the level of fentanyl mixed in with the heroin — a potent drug that has led to a significant increase in deaths.

According to the CDC, fentanyl is a synthetic opioid pain reliever approved for treating severe pain.

Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and is sold in the illegal drug market to increase the euphoric effects of heroin. 

“It’s an epidemic people are dealing with nationwide, and nobody has a good answer yet,” Portage County Sheriff David Doak said. “Everyone is trying to figure out what to do about it, and it’s going to be years before we’re able to overcome it.”

In the future, Clyde said state officials are considering legislation to increase the penalties for trafficking heroin. The current drug trafficking penalty results in a prison sentence that varies in length depending on the felony degree and amount of heroin in possession. First-degree trafficking felony results in three to 11 years in prison, according to Columbus Criminal Defense Attorney Adam G. Burke’s website.

“We need to continue passing common sense laws and work with our counterparts on the local level to deal with the crisis,” Clyde said. “I’m going to continue to monitor the situation on the state level and talking with local officials.”

One of Clyde’s main initiatives continues to be focusing on educating citizens about the dangers of heroin use. She emphasized the importance of smaller local government including counties and cities to support education and prevention organizations.

“Education is important,” Clyde said. “I know that the local level has taken some funding cuts from the state and federal levels, and it is hard to do more with less.

Clyde said finding new ways to make sure citizens are educated and talking to school-aged kids about the dangers of heroin and other drug use.

“We need to be providing support to families that are being affected by this crisis,” she said.

Mike Kerrigan, a candidate running for Portage County commissioner, said local government officials, unfortunately, can do very little about this issue.

Legislation cannot be passed at the county level because of the limits placed on county governments. However, Portage County commissioners support the efforts of organizations such as the Mental Health and Recovery Board, which provides assistance to drug-related treatment facilities including Townhall II and Coleman Professional Services. 

The board helps fund a variety of drug rehabilitation services including detox.

“The number one goal here is keeping people alive,” Joel Mowery, executive director of the Mental Health and Recovery Board, said. “The number of people that have died from overdoses has continued to rise every year.”

The county is also in the midst of establishing a drug court, which would serve as an alternative to jail or prison time for people charged with low-level felonies.

“They’re really looking at the entire spectrum,” Kerrigan said in support of the initiative. “You have to start with the problem … and how do we get them in the right place that they need to go.”

Portage County Court of Common Pleas Judge Becky Doherty submitted the proposal to add a drug court docket to the system in March. She has been working on implementing a drug court since taking the bench a year and a half ago.

Though the resources the drug court will offer has already been put into place, Doherty said becoming a certified drug court will allow the county to apply for a grant and other additional funding, which will allow the court to hire more probation officers. Currently, Doherty said the probation officers are “stretched thin” trying to monitor all the defendants.

“We’re already doing it,” Dohert­y said. “We just don’t have the certification yet. My probation department is very diligent in trying to combat this problem. The heroin addicts and the ones that are at risk are certainly on our radar all the time.”

Doherty said the drug court, titled Portage County Hope Program, uses a variety of resources to help defendants overcome their addiction including access to Vivitrol, a shot designed to block the cravings for heroin, but the most important aspect to a successful recovery is the willingness of the defendant to want to overcome their addiction and participate in the program.

“Families who have drug addicts in their lives think that drug courts are the answer,” Doherty said. “It can only be the answer for folks that want to participate. The success or lack of it depends primarily on the defendant. I can offer all of the resources. I can put all of it out there, but they have to want to do it.”

Samantha Ickes is a features correspondent, contact her at [email protected].