DeWine forum puts spotlight on drug abuse

AG: Raid on ‘pill mills’ factor in heroin’s rise

11/18/2013
BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF
Marin Riggs
Marin Riggs

COLUMBUS — Marin Riggs was a pretty, bright girl who graduated early from high school in the Columbus suburbs and had plans to study to become an ultrasound technician.

DeWine
DeWine

But just two weeks after her 20th birthday last year, she instead died in her family’s bathroom from a heroin overdose, becoming another statistic in an epidemic that Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said Monday has spread far beyond city streets and into suburban and rural homes.

He announced the formation of an estimated $1 million-a-year heroin unit within his office to help local law enforcement and organizations fight back against a doubling of Ohio heroin deaths during the last three years. That mission will bring Mr. DeWine to Toledo today.

“We thought heroin was a street drug, a junkie’s drug ... ,” said Marin’s mother, Heidi Riggs, of Upper Arlington.

“It’s not something that only happens to kids whose parents are uninvolved in their lives. It doesn’t only happen to low-income families, and it isn’t something that someone can resolve quickly. Heroin is readily available in every suburb, in every city, and every state.”

Mr. DeWine will hold his second community forum on drug abuse today from 3 to 4:30 p.m. at the Emergency Services Training Center at 2127 Jefferson Ave., Toledo. Among those participating will be state Rep. Robert Sprague (R., Findlay), who recently chaired a House drug abuse task force; Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates, and Sheriff John Tharp.

The first forum was held last month in Portsmouth in Scioto County, where much of the state’s efforts in combating opiate painkiller abuse had been focused. Mr. DeWine said the closing of “pill mills” and a legislative crackdown has likely contributed to the rise in heroin abuse.

“As we pushed the balloon one way, it’s popped out another place,” he said. “However, that’s too simple. … The spike in heroin has been occurring before we did anything. … I suspect that it spiked more because of what we’ve done with prescription drugs.

“I’m not sorry we did what we did because no one starts on heroin. So if we can stop people from becoming addicted to opiates, down the road in a few years those people will not become addicted to heroin.”

A survey of 47 county coroners conducted by Mr. DeWine’s office showed that deaths attributed to heroin more than doubled from 292 in 2010 to 606 in 2013. Those numbers do not include figures from the Lucas County coroner’s office, which, Mr. DeWine’s office said, had not responded to its query.

The coroner’s office also did not return calls to The Blade on Monday. But numbers published earlier this year showed that in 2010, 14 heroin deaths occurred in the region of more than 20 northwest counties served by the Lucas toxicology lab, increasing to 31 in 2011 and 55 last year.

Lucas County accounted for an estimated 60 percent of those cases.

Former Hamilton County Commissioner David Pepper, the Republican attorney general’s probable Democratic opponent next year, said law enforcement across the state has been well aware it has a heroin epidemic even as state aid was cut to local governments on the front lines.

“I’m glad the attorney general is focusing on this,” Mr. Pepper said. “My criticism is that he’s been involved in so many other debates like fighting [Affordable Care Act-mandated contraception coverage] in courts around the country rather than this type of role that the attorney general should be playing.

“If I were attorney general, it wouldn’t be three years into an epidemic before I start pulling together a unit to deal with it.”

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.