Photo: Panel members at Thursday’s Opiate/Heroin Open Forum at Southern State Community College in Hillsboro included, from right, David McKenna, Rocky Coss, Jeremy Ratcliff, Jeff Beery, Jared Warner, Joe Adray, Tracey Coss, Charles Russell and Donnie Barrera. Pictured standing is Carol Baden, a community outreach specialist with Ohio Attorney General Mike Dewine’s Office, who helped organize the forum.
By Jeff Gilliland – [email protected]
The man was not on the agenda to speak. But as an Opiate/Heroin Open Forum came to a close Thursday at Southern State Community College in Hillsboro he strode the podium with a request to tell a short story.
He said he had been in and out of the Highland County justice system for 25 years. He said he had been shown tough love by local judges, had several run-ins with the sheriff, and knew the probation department well. But he could never get straight. Then one day he had a moment of clarity, and Judge Rocky Coss gave him another chance. He’s been sober for 23 months.
The man’s story summed up the main message of the forum – don’t give up on people facing addiction and/or dependency problems. They need help, whether it’s treatment, medication to help them get off drugs or save their lives, love, compassion, or the word of God.
“We can argue all day about how we got to this point, but the storm is here. The flood is coming. And if we don’t do something about it we are all going to get washed away,” Hillsboro Municipal Court Judge David McKenna said.
Several members of the forum’s nine-person panel, plus featured speaker Congressman Brad Wenstrup, said residential treatment facilities are needed right here in Highland County. Rocky Coss, Highland County Common Pleas Court judge, said that’s because treatment options currently available to the courts don’t treat offenders long enough. He said it takes 18 to 24 months for the effects of opiate abuse to reverse themselves.
“I’ve heard a lot of resistance to that. I’ve heard people say we don’t want that in our community,” Coss said. “But let me tell you what – they’re already here. They’re just not being supervised.”
The judge’s daughter, Tracey Coss, the emergency department director at Highland District Hospital, told a story she said she has witnessed too many times.
She said some people brought a kid around age 20 or so to the ER in a car. He was blue, he had to be carried out of the car, his mom was crying. The hospital staff gave him Narcan, a drug also known by other names that reverses the effects of heroin. In about 15 minutes the kid started feeling better. He wanted to leave the hospital because he thought he was going to get in trouble. His mom tried to stop him, but the boy walked away. The receptionist was so worried that she ran outside to try to stop him, but he left anyway. Coss said she heard he died.
Tracey Coss and others talked about making Narcan more available. But it’s expensive. She said a pharmacy’s cost for one dose is $400.
“If I’m working the ER, anyone that overdoses, I’m putting a prescription for (Narcan) in the family’s hand,” said Dr. Charles Russell. “How much is your daughter’s life worth – $400?”
Heather Gibson, a Hillsboro High School graduate and Greenfield resident working on a degree in early childhood education, said Highland County’s infant mortality rate of 15.8 percent is one of the highest in the state, well above the state rate of 7.7 percent, and largely due to drug use. She has started a group called the Highland County Drug Abuse Prevention Coalition that’s open to anyone interested in helping. It meets from noon to 1 p.m. the fourth Thursday of each month at the North High Business Center in Hillsboro.
Wenstrup, also a doctor, said that in the 1960s when people talked about heroin, “That was the weirdest of the weird. They were the worst people,” and there weren’t many of them.
He said that a few years ago his home in Highland County was broken into and that it was drug-related because the thieves only took things they could sell quickly.
He said part of the opiate/heroin problem started with doctors prescribing too many pills. He said doctors need to be more aware of what they’re prescribing, drug education needs to start at younger ages, Narcan needs to be readily available because it’s saving so many lives, and there have to be more programs in place for offenders when they get out of incarceration.
He said those issues need to be discussed more in Washington, D.C., but those discussions are maybe even more vital at the local level “because nobody cares as much about your community as you do. … That’s why we’re here today, to take your suggestions.”
The forum was put on by Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s Office. It was sponsored in part by the Highland County Drug Abuse Prevention Coalition and the Paint Valley ADAMH Board. A crowd of 200 or more turned out for it.
Highland County Sheriff Donnie Barrera said more longterm residential treatment facilities are needed. But he said addicts need to be taken away from their hometown to get the treatment they need.
Russell, who helps once a week at FRS, said it’s no wonder Hillsboro has a drug problem with so many U.S. and state routes passing through it.
Joe Adray, the CEO of FRS, formerly Family Recovery Services, in Hillsboro, said most of the people he sees have abused more than one drug. He said once addiction takes over, the drug abuser is no longer the person they used to be and the addict becomes the one making the former person’s decisions.
“I’ve heard it said it takes a village to raise a child,” Adray said. “I’m not sure it takes a village. But I’m sure it takes a family. I’m sure it takes love … to get (an addict’s) life back on track and that’s where we all come in.”
Highland County Health Commissioner Jared Warner noted that Hepatitis C cases – often caused by drug users sharing needles – have risen from 25 cases in 2009 to 102 cases in 2015. And, he said, the department has already seen 25 new cases this month.
Dr. Jeff Beery, the Highland County coroner, said marijuana is a gateway drug that often leads to the use of stronger drugs. He said there is no medical use for marijuana. He also said he believes the heroin problem has been partly initiated by terrorists.
Beery said that while there were all kinds of experts on Thursday’s panel, “What we need is a theologian to pray us out of this problem. I think we all need to pray. I think it will help quite a bit.”
Highland County Chief Probation Officer Jeremy Ratcliff said his department started seeing heroin in drug screens about 10 years ago and that it has become the biggest problem he knows of. He said that you can only give people so many chances before they have to go before a judge, but added, “Getting people clean and sober improves public safety, and helping people become productive members of society saves money.”
Coss said heroin addiction hits people from all walks of life, but the ones he sees return to his court most often are the ones that don’t have a support system when they come out of incarceration. He said he’s been asked how long it will take to reverse the heroin trend.
“I think it’s going to take a generation,” Coss said. “Because we need a generation of kids who don’t grow up thinking it’s OK to do drugs because everyone else in the house is doing them.”
He said winning the battle will take a commitment from everyone, but it can be won.
“It’s a war that affecting us all on every level,” the judge said. “I know all of us (on the panel) are believers, and all of you out there are believers. What is needed is for you to go out and evangelize to everyone else to make them believers.”
McKenna said there are three types of people who need to have an attitude change: those that think addicts should get what they deserve; those that don’t know there’s a heroin problem; and those that say it’s not their problem.
“The crime rate is going up and heroin is the drug running the gasoline machine,” McKenna said. “Everybody has to take the next step together, and faith can help, because it’s going to take a whole lot of mercy.”
Reach Jeff Gilliland at 937-402-2522 or on Twitter @13gillilandj.