By JAN LARSON McLAUGHLIN
BG Independent News
Seventeen Wood County residents died last year from opioid overdoses.
Two days before a recent community forum on opioid addiction, Wood County Commissioner Ted Bowlus went to the funeral visitation for 33-year-old man killed by opioids.
“He came from a good family. His mother was a nurse,” Bowlus said. “It just goes to show it can happen to anybody,” regardless of their age, education, socio-economic situation.
“We need the public, we need the community, we need the county in helping us fight this battle,” Bowlus said as he talked about the crisis that kills 130 people each day in the U.S.
The community meeting on opioid addiction, held at First United Methodist Church in Bowling Green, featured speakers who try to prevent addiction, those who work with addicts, and those who decide the fate of addicts in court.
Kyle Clark and Milan Karna addressed the prevention efforts in the county – stressing that addiction is not a moral failing but rather a chronic brain disease.
“Addiction is an epidemic in our county and is best addressed through prevention,” Clark said. “Youth and adolescent programs are more important than ever before.”
Through the Wood County Educational Service Centers’ Prevention Coalition, efforts are made to delay experimentation with drugs by local youths. The older they are, the more responsible decisions they can make as their brains develop, Clark said.
So programs are offered to try to decrease the availability of drugs, alcohol and cigarettes, while increasing the education to kids about the harm these items can cause, Clark said.
For the past 16 years, surveys conducted in Wood County schools show some success with students. For example, in the most recent survey, 95.7 percent of fifth through 12th grade students said they had been drug free in the last 30 days.
“That’s because prevention works,” Clark said.
For every $1 spent on prevention, $67 are saved, Milan said.
“The cost of addiction is really quite staggering,” he said.
Parents need to play a role in prevention, Milan added.
“A critical part of this is truly parents talking to their kids about drugs,” he said.
Working with addicts
Belinda Brooks works with local addicts as coordinator of the Addiction Response Collaborative. She and Det. Sgt. Ryan Richards respond to every opioid overdose in the county within 72 hours – usually much sooner.
Brooks encourages people to get treatment rather than face jail time.
“If they want help, that’s where I come in the picture,” she said.
Brooks works with the addict and their family. “Addiction affects all of us, not just the person addicted,” she said.
She works to remove barriers for the addict, so they don’t relapse. That process can take 18 to 24 months, and can include getting them insurance, a driver’s license and employment. “We walk them through the whole process.”
During the first 14 months of the ARC program, 100 addicts have been served by the program. Two people in the program have overdosed. And 17 people in the county died from overdoses last year.
“That’s too many, that’s just too many,” Brooks said.
“We’ve had several who just don’t want help,” she said. “They’re not ready.”
Overall in Ohio, 3,050 people died from opiate overdoses in 2015. That number jumped to 4,050 in 2016, then to 4,854 in 2017.
But there are success stories, Brooks said. The first overdose victim in the ARC program, 14 months ago, is now enrolled in the law enforcement program at Owens Community College.
“A handful are in jail,” but 84 percent are still in treatment, Brooks said.
Creating laws to stop the opiate crisis
State Senator Theresa Gavarone, R-Bowling Green, talked about the $180 million that has gone toward opioid addiction prevention, education, recovery, and getting people back to work.
Data is being collected in the state to find new sellers and potent batches of opiates “This is helping get a grasp on what’s going on in our communities,” she said.
Several bills have been passed or are still in the process in response to the opioid crisis:
- A bill to increase access to non-opiate pain relief.
- A bill increasing the level of offense for trafficking drugs near rehabilitation facilities.
- Legislation increasing hospital beds for opiate addicts.
“The legislation comes from the people on the ground,” who know best what is needed, Gavarone said.
Handling addicts in the courts
Wood County Common Pleas Judge Matthew Reger has learned that the work of a judge requires not only knowledge of the law, but also some social work skills.
When sentencing addicts, Reger will often offer intervention in lieu of conviction, That intervention is then monitored by adult probation. If the addict violates probation, the judge can terminate the intervention and toss the defendant in jail. But often Reger doesn’t on the first violation.
“We all know that prison doesn’t solve the problem,” he said.
Community based correction facilities are a better option, but there is no local facility like that for women.
“There are a lot of gaps in the system,” he said. And prison is the last option, Reger said.
As a judge, Reger often sees the family members of addicts in court.
“I see the ripples of the addiction cases,” he said.
Reger mentioned that volunteers are needed to walk alongside addicts during their rehabilitation process as “sober advocates.”
Drug awareness across a lifespan
Americans make up 5 percent of the world’s population, but consume 80 percent of the world’s opioids, according to Dr. Nancy Orel, executive director of research for the Optimal Aging Institute of BGSU.
Some uses are for persistent pain, others for comfort, and some in response to compulsions. Opiate overdoses are now the fifth leading cause of death nationally, and the leading cause of death for Americans 55 years and younger, Orel said. Opiates have surpassed auto accidents as the cause of deaths, she said.
Orel also talked about the ripple effects. Every 25 minutes in the U.S., a baby is born suffering from opiate withdrawal symptoms, she said.
She suggested that people get rid of old drugs they are not using in their homes, and that the nation examine its response to patient needs.
“How do we manage chronic pain in this country,” she said.