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Wednesday, September 17, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 3/16/2014 - Updated: 6 months ago

COMMENTARY

Chasing an epidemic

Local heroin initiative has promise — and perils

BY JEFF GERRITT
DEPUTY EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR
Gerritt Gerritt
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Toledo area law enforcement agencies are about to send some tough messages to the streets, including this one: Traffic in heroin and you could get slapped with a murder charge.

Triggered by a real desire to arrest a growing heroin epidemic, the message still won’t stick if the new coalition doesn’t make good on its commitment to treat the addicted.

I learned last week that local police and sheriff’s deputies plan to team up with the Lucas County Prosecutor’s Office, the county coroner, the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation, and others to get people into treatment and to pursue drug dealers and sellers.

In the case of a fatal overdose, law enforcement agencies could even, depending on the evidence, go for manslaughter or second-degree murder charges. The initiative marks the end of business as usual, which treated such overdoses as accidents or, in rare cases, suicides.

“We need to get proactive,” Lucas County Sheriff John Tharp told me. “We owe that much to the victims and to the community.”

Heroin overdoses now will be investigated similarly to the way in which homicide cases are pursued. Law enforcement officers will search, or sweep, the victim’s home and gather evidence, including phone numbers, contacts, and cell phones. Those leads could help police backtrack and find the person who sold the drugs. Police will also interview the person who overdosed, if he or she is alive.

But Sheriff Tharp and Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates told me that the initiative also will focus on treatment. Law enforcement agencies will help get survivors of a drug overdose connected with local treatment providers.

“We have a terrible problem, and we have to do something more than what we’re doing,” Ms. Bates said.

The new approach will start with the next overdose case.

Treatment remains the key. An opiate addict who’s sick and feigning will do anything to get well. As long as there’s a market for heroin, or any other drug, dealers — from shot-callers to street-level clockers — will find a way to supply it. It’s the law of supply and demand — capitalism in action.

Police shouldn’t waste time and resources arresting the survivors of a drug overdose. Addiction is a disease and should be treated as such. After speaking with Ms. Bates, I know she understands that.

Prosecutors also need to be vigilant about over-charging. People can overdose on heroin for many reasons. Maybe they took some NyQuil after shooting up and the medication’s antihistamines reacted fatally with heroin.

Or maybe the addict had been clean for a week, and his tolerance for the drug dropped before he injected his normal dose of heroin. That could easily cause a fatal reaction, with no intent or reasonable expectation by the seller of the drug. As Lucas County’s chief toxicologist, Dr. Robert Forney, told me, illicit drug users are practicing pharmacy without a license.

A fatal overdose can be caused by many conditions that are outside the control of someone selling heroin. Low-level dealers are often addicts or users themselves. In most cases, charges related to selling drugs are more appropriate than murder or even manslaughter charges.

We can’t arrest our way out of this problem by overcharging street-level dealers. The nation has gone down that road for decades — and failed miserably — with mandatory minimum drug sentences and other get-tough measures.

They haven’t solved our drug problem, but they have made the United States the world’s leading incarcerator, with more than 2 million people locked up in prisons and jails.

In northwest Ohio, heroin-related deaths more than doubled last year — to 80, from 31 in 2012. Heroin has become a cheap way to satisfy an opiate addiction that often started with prescription painkillers such as Vicodin and OxyContin.

On the street, OxyContin can cost $45 or $50 a dose. Vicodin pills sell for $3 or $4 each, but an opioid addict may need dozens of them even to feel normal. Heroin sells for $10 a pack — $85 for a half-gram — and is far more potent and lasting.

Ohio’s heroin epidemic has hit small towns and rural areas as hard as it has hit cities. This initiative by local law enforcement could — and should — include police departments in suburbs such as Maumee and Oregon. If the coalition is serious about treatment, it should also include local treatment providers.

Give Sheriff Tharp, Prosecutor Bates, the coroner’s office, the Toledo Police Department, and others credit for stepping up. Their plan to fight this insidious epidemic has much promise — and a few perils.

If they do it right, however, their approach could save lives, educate the region, and help contain a scourge that’s tearing up our community.

Jeff Gerritt is The Blade’s deputy editorial page editor.

Contact him at: jgerritt@theblade.com, 419-724-6467, or follow him on Twitter @jeffgerritt.



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