It is definitely getting worse before it gets better.
Lorain County’s struggle with opioid addiction is showing no signs of stopping, according to Dennis Cavanaugh.
He’s in a unique position to know. As the chief deputy at the sheriff’s office, he heads the Lorain County Drug Task Force and has watched heroin and fentanyl take root.
“We’re stuck in a bubble,” he said. “I don’t see things improving a whole lot in the very near future.”
In 2017, he counted 1,178 times that law enforcement, firefighters, and paramedics responded to overdoses countywide. Cavanaugh said fatalities are likely to fly past 110 as pending test results come back from the lab to the coroner’s office.
Those numbers don’t tell the whole deadly story, though.
If people who live in Avon, Avon Lake, North Ridgeville, or Columbia Township go to St. John Medical Center or to downtown Cleveland for treatment, their fate is recorded in Cuyahoga County, not here.
Cavanaugh described an addiction crisis that has spiraled so out of control that it is far beyond the scope of any one agency to address.
Every couple of weeks, the Lorain County crime lab identifies a new take on fentanyl that’s been cooked up and put into circulation — as it is, that opioid can be up to 50 times stronger than heroin.
Recently, dealers have been mixing it with cocaine and hitting unsuspecting buyers, which Cavanaugh said may cause overdoses to skyrocket in the very near future.
“Why would you kill off your clientele?” he said. “Some folks, they don’t know what they’re selling, and those that do — those who know their people are dying from the product they sell — they still don’t care. They continue to sell, which is pretty pathetic. They don’t care about anybody or anything else. Unfortunately, they’re playing games with people’s lives.”
Greed is typically the dealer’s motivating factor, he said, which strengthens his belief that arresting addicts won’t solve the problem. Most of the people who are making money aren’t the ones overdosing, the chief deputy said.
The goal is to go after the suppliers — those that are selling to upward of 20 people. Cavanaugh believes they should be held accountable for involuntary manslaughter, which will hopefully scare other dealers into dropping the drug trade.
Every effort must be made — right away — to stop more people from becoming dependent on opioids, while supporting the recovery of those who already are.
The complexity of the opioid crisis requires medical, legislative, behavioral, educational, and legal changes all coordinated to do the most good.
Attacking each of those parts of the problem separately might help, but too slowly to keep up with the velocity of the opioid crisis, Cavanaugh argued.
To begin with, there aren’t enough treatment facilities, he said, and many facing addiction don’t have insurance coverage. He hopes drug addicts will get the help they need if the county finds an effective way to provide increased immediate support.
“No matter what you’re doing, you have to try something,” Cavanaugh said. “If you save one or two (lives), is it successful? It doesn’t look that way on the grand spectrum, but did you save one person’s life? That’s pretty good. That’s pretty important. It’s not a high statistic, but you can’t equate that.”
A life is a life, he said, and law enforcement has a moral obligation to do what it can to save people from heroin’s grip.
Laurie Hamame can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @HamameNews on Twitter.