Three federal agents have been assigned to help fight opioid abuse and deadly overdoses in Lorain County.
A “Coalition of Partners” was introduced Monday by county commissioners. It includes the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and entities such as Lorain County Community College, the Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services Board of Lorain County, and The LCADA Way.
Also revealed were plans to pool resources from all levels of law enforcement into one building adjacent to the county’s new 911 call center at 201 Burns Rd. in Elyria, which officers said is a “one-roof” strategy that has already been put in place in other overdose hot spots like Summit County.
“We need to focus on cutting off business for trafficking,” said Dep. Dennis Cavanaugh of the Lorain County Sheriff’s Office. “We need to raise awareness and education about the issue to the entire community for prevention and recovery support. We’re going to need a talented work force to adequately address this epidemic and I’m pleased to a present this coalition to you.”
“We can’t arrest our way out of this,” said sheriff Phil Stammitti. “I’d like to see hellfire and brimstone when it comes to dealing. Bringing in this extra help will be key in cleaning up our neighborhoods.”
GETTING FEDERAL HELP
More than 130 people died by overdose last year in Lorain County.
Fatal incidents involving fentanyl tripled the death tally from 2015 with drastic increases in cocaine and heroin deaths not far behind.
As a result, Lorain County was designated as a high-intensity drug trafficking area, or HIDTA, in October and became eligible for federal assistance.
The HIDTA program was created in 1988 and covers 18.3 percent of counties in 49 states.
Thirteen Ohio counties are now aided by the program.
“We have a huge problem and it’s getting worse,” said DEA agent Jim Goodwin, who runs the agency’s Cleveland office. “Our current intelligence indicates it’s not going to get better anytime soon. With the introduction of fentanyl into cocaine and different drugs, it’s now reaching a different part of society.”
Goodwin said overtime accumulated by local officers dealing with drug related issues will be reimbursed by the federal government as part of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces Program.
“The good news is we haven’t worked this well in history,” he said. “All federal, state, and local departments are coming together. Typically, this federal money is for one specific case. A year ago, the federal government came up with the OCDETF for heroin in general. We can respond to any case, fatal or non-fatal, and the government will cover that overtime.”
Seven Lorain County police departments participate in the task forces program: Wellington, Amherst, Lorain, Avon Lake, North Ridgeville, Vermilion, and Avon.
“Putting agencies under one roof is a force multiplier for the community,” said fellow DEA agent Eric Kockanowski. “Smaller police departments don’t have the resources to run a full narcotics unit.”
A SOCIETAL CANCER
It’s increasingly difficult to classify the deadly drugs associated with Ohio’s epidemic, said Emmanuel de Leon, director of the Lorain County crime lab.
Experts call lethal mixes of fentanyl with heroin and cocaine “multiple mixed drugs,” or MMD.
De Leon said that in the first half of the year his office has analyzed 295 MMD samples compared to 215 of pure cocaine.
“What kills people is what they don’t know,” he said. “This epidemic is becoming a societal cancer. It causes agonizing pain on all levels. I don’t want to say, ‘Bring it on,’ but we’re ready to do everything we can.”
Elaine Georgas, executive director of the Lorain County Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services Board, said there are at least 96,756 non-medical users of opioids in Lorain County.
Ninety percent of people with drug abuse problems started using before age 18, with 80 percent starting with prescription drugs and only 10 percent ever receiving treatment.
“Addiction is a chronic disease and just like cancer, heart disease, or diabetes, it can be fatal if left untreated,” she said. “The recovery and treatment side of this is just as important as the enforcement side. This isn’t what we’ve been accustomed to seeing in the past during other drug epidemics. If there was any other situation where this many people were dying every day, I think we’d be more urgent than we’ve been the past four years.”
Christina Bugarella, a social worker for Lorain County Children Services, said six out of 12 families she is working with involve parents struggling with addiction.
Four parents on her caseload have died from overdoses since January 2015.
“This is unlike anything our children have ever faced before,” she said. “The destruction of families through what we’ve traditionally classified as abuse and neglect is moderate and in most cases correctable. With the opioid crisis, it’s not moderate. It’s severe and often startling. Kids are scared for their parents and unsettled about who will care for them. That’s a memory that will stay with them for a very long time.”
POPPY FIELDS NO LONGER NEEDED
Lorain County saw roughly 12 to 20 overdose deaths from 2001 to 2010, said coroner Stephen Evans.
A slight uptick in 2010 and 2011 was an ominous precursor to what happened the following year as the total exploded to over 60 deaths.
Until 2016’s grim tally, those numbers had remained relatively steady.
The current pace for 2017 in Lorain County could put final yearly total overdose deaths above 250, he said. That’s much higher than the 200 he had projected as of July.
“This is a pandemic,” he said. “This isn’t just a problem in Lorain County, or the state, or the country. This is a problem for the entire world. With synthetic opioids, a dealer doesn’t need a poppy field anymore, just a kitchen. Our early use of Narcan allowed our overdose numbers to level off for a few years, but now we’ve doubled again.”
More than 300 people have been saved from a fatal overdose in the county by use of naloxone, sold under the brand name Narcan and now carried by most emergency responders.
LCCC president Marcia Ballinger was thanked at the meeting for working to make the new Burns Road location available, which lies on the school’s campus.
Since 2015, the college has operated its Center for Addiction and Recovery Education, which Ballinger said is the first of its kind in Ohio.
“Students on our campus shared with us how addiction was affecting them,” she said. “They needed services as they came back to school and a place to come together. We created an opportunity for them to have services on campus and to help one another. A young lady with me here today went through the program and is now working on her Ph.D for social work.”
County commissioner Matt Lundy recalled a letter he received in his time as a state representative.
“Good people can get very addicted,” he said. “I think the public perception (is that) those who end up addicted are the ones who were already troublemakers. That’s simply not true. In this letter, I was told of a beautiful granddaughter. She had been an angel to her grandmother. She dated the wrong guy and found herself addicted to drugs. She swore at Grandma. She threatened Grandma. She stole her jewelry.”
“This is our entire community’s problem,” he added. “The drug dealers have stolen too many of our loved ones. We want you to know you can’t run. You can’t hide. Justice will find you.”
Jonathan Delozier can be reached at 440-647-3171 or @DelozierNews on Twitter.