Dr. Jeff Beery doesn’t agree with those who think marijuana is a relatively harmless drug that carries medicinal qualities and should even be winked at for recreational purposes.
But Beery doesn’t just think marijuana is a gateway to more dangerous drugs.
“It’s a gateway to hell,” he says flatly.
Beery’s perspective is based on four years serving as Highland County coroner, with more than a decade before that as a deputy coroner. He provided statistics this week from 2016 on 50 fatalities he investigated last year that he deemed suspicious, or at least unusually odd or interesting.
Beery said there has been a steady increase in deaths related one way or another to drugs, raising fatalities connected to illicit drugs to alarming proportions. He said the word “epidemic” is not sufficient to describe the toll being taken on Highland County.
“It’s a craze, not an epidemic,” he said, adding that “epidemic” implies something beyond people’s control.
The 50 cases provided by Beery from 2016 range from deaths by car crashes, burns, gun shots, heart attacks, hyperthermia and suicides to asphyxia and embolisms. But most of them have a common denominator, he said – the presence of drug use, or a history of drug use.
At least eight cases out of the 50 cited by Beery include marijuana as a factor contributing to the fatalities, in his opinion. Six fatalities were connected to heroin, three to cocaine, eight to amphetamines, including methamphetamine, and several to drugs like Xanax, Valium, Clonazepam and, especially, Fentanyl, which has been increasingly found mixed with heroin.
Beery blames a lax attitude by society and particularly by elected officials, including at the state and federal level, for contributing to the rise in drug-related deaths. He said former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision not to pursue marijuana charges at the federal level “opened the door to the wild progression of illicit drugs.”
Holder consistently expressed views on marijuana that were opposed to treating the drug as seriously as other narcotics. In a 2016 PBS interview, after he was no longer attorney general, Holder said, “It’s hard for me to imagine ever decriminalizing crack cocaine, drugs like that. But the whole question of should marijuana be decriminalized, I mean, that’s a conversation I think that we should engage in.”
Beery is aware of the fierce pushback among many people and organizations to his stand on marijuana. Groups like the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) – whose mission is “to move public opinion sufficiently to legalize the responsible use of marijuana by adults, and to serve as an advocate for consumers to assure they have access to high quality marijuana that is safe, convenient and affordable,” according to its website – have won referendums and convinced legislatures to at least legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes.
Many patients suffering from certain serious illnesses or chronic pain insist that marijuana is the only effective relief they have found. Beery disagrees, saying marijuana has no medicinal qualities. He blames Ohio’s Republican-led “so-called conservative” legislature for caving in on the medical marijuana issue, even though the consequences of marijuana use and cultivation are obvious, especially in southern Ohio, he said.
“Just look at Pike County,” said Beery, referring to the murders last year of the Rhoden family, where a large marijuana growing operation worth hundreds of thousands of dollars on the street was found.
Beery said a lax attitude about border security and drugs also contributes to the problem.
Beery said that while investigating deaths in recent years, “I would see other things,” ranging from marijuana to heroin to cocaine that, to him, were obvious contributors not just to overdoses but to car wrecks, gun shots, homicides, burns and suicides.
Beery has high praise for Highland County Prosecutor Anneka Collins and her decision to pursue two overdose deaths as involuntary manslaughter cases, going after the people who allegedly supplied the deceased with the drugs that ultimately killed them.
He said the effects of marijuana last for weeks. But more than that, “it sucks at the soul,” said Beery, and causes people to lose their will to improve their spiritual lives or turn their lives around. He said his experience shows that coming off marijuana, along with other drugs, leads to violent behavior when people are “in the throes of seeking more.”
Beery said that lives that could otherwise be purposeful and constructive are being lost at a frightening pace. He said he investigated two fatal overdoses on Thursday alone that happened almost simultaneously, one in Hillsboro, being investigated by the Hillsboro Police Department, and the other near Berrysville, being probed by the Highland County Sheriff’s Office.
“They probably happened at the same time,” said Beery, speculating that the same drug source could be responsible.
Beery said he works closely with local law enforcement, emergency medical responders, funeral homes, medical professionals and others to conduct his investigations, and praised the cooperation he receives across the county.
Beery said those who disagree with his positions might change their minds if they saw what he sees on a regular basis. He has been video recording more of his investigations in an effort to more strongly make his case and draw attention to the catastrophe he sees unfolding with each passing year.
Illicit drugs, including marijuana, might seem harmless at first, he said, “but they lead to a far more grizzly scene.”
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or by email at [email protected].