Top story 3: Opioid problem grows into an epidemic during the year

Times file photo Last year around this time, Sgt. Ryan Huffman, right, of the Marietta Police Department, and Sgt. Eric Augenstein, left, of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, catalogued heroin, drug paraphernalia, prescription pills, digital scales, packing materials and marijuana, at a home in Marietta

Living in a county with just around 60,000 people, it is hard for most not to be touched by the effects of the opioid epidemic. Perhaps that is why it was voted the number three top local story of 2017 by readers of The Marietta Times.

Since the beginning of November, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office has responded to three overdose calls. In 2017, there were 27 calls and three deaths resulting from fentanyl or heroin overdoses, according to information provided by the sheriff’s office.

Within the city of Marietta, the number of overdose calls has been fewer over the past couple months than in the county, according to Marietta Police Capt. Aaron Nedeff, but the vigilance in combating the crisis is the same.

“We are always looking for new approaches towards dealing with the drug epidemic as well as evaluating steps that other groups are trying. (Marietta Municipal Court) Judge (Janet) Welch recently brought many groups in together to brainstorm and discuss possible solutions going forward in 2018 and beyond. While I don’t have any major change to announce at present it’s certainly a priority issue,” he said.

The crisis has even reached the highest office in the land when, in October, President Donald Trump declared opioid abuse to be a national public health emergency. In December, Ohio’s Third Frontier Commission awarded $10 million to to six companies and a university that have come up with innovative scientific ideas to address the national opioid epidemic.

A collection of data from Your Voice Ohio, made up of media outlets throughout the state sharing and disseminating information, shows details about all of the victims of unintentional opioid overdose in the state for the past six years using data extracted from death records. It explains their occupations, how old they were, whether they were married, where they lived and where they died.

Each line is dedicated to one individual life, a short description of a wealth of experience, but some insight can be gained by listening to what the numbers say. In 2016, there were 3,938 lines in the Ohio database, one for each life extinguished.

In Washington County, like the rest of the state, the number of lines in the database escalated dramatically over time. Of the 28 deaths reported from 2010 to 2016, more than half occurred in the past two years. In 2016 alone, 12 people died of opioid overdoses.

Both heroin and prescription opioids are readily available in the Athens region of the Ohio Substance Abuse Monitoring Network, which includes Washington County. OSAM publishes a detailed drug trend report every six months in January and June. The next report will be available at the end of January.

Participants surveyed for the report most often ranked the current availability of the drug as “10” on a scale of “0” (not available, impossible to get) to “10” (highly available, extremely easy to get). For prescription opioids, respondents ranked the current street availability of these drugs as “10” on a scale of “0” (not available, impossible to get) to “10” (highly available, extremely easy to get).

In November, county voters passed a Behavioral Health Levy after five attempts. Organizers speculated that the local drug crisis probably helped to garner the needed votes.

“I just think the issue with drugs and mental health is one of the more important things going on in our community. How could you not support it?” one Lowell voter, Audrey Moodie, said on Election Day.

While levy money probably won’t be seen until April or May, Jim Raney, co-chair of the newly-formed Program Planning and Oversight Committee of the Washington County Behavioral Health Board, said the wheels are turning.

“We have begun to consider possible future changes to current WCBHB programs, services and facilities and to develop a Request for Proposals to expand WCBHB programs, services and facilities to provide more of the essential elements of community-based continuum of care for Washington County residents,” he said.

The committee plans to meet with county commissioners in the April-May timeframe, according to Raney, and they continue to meet regularly on Tuesdays. All committee meetings are open to the public.

Nedeff added that the department has been working to get all of its officers through Crisis Intervention Training (CIT), and that will continue in 2018.

“This training deals with opening an officer’s understanding of both mental health crisis as well as addiction, from the other person’s perspective,” Nedeff said.

With regards to the opioid crisis specifically, Raney said Ohio Revised Code section 340.30 requires the WCBHB to administer a “county hub program to combat opioid addiction,” the purposes of which include strengthening county and community efforts to prevent and treat opioid addiction; educating youth and adults about the dangers of opioid addiction and the negative effects it has on society; promoting family building and workforce development as ways of combating opioid addiction in communities; and encouraging community engagement.

“By Jan. 1, 2020, the board must submit to the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services a report summarizing the board’s work on, and progress toward, addressing each of the county hub program’s purposes. We look forward to working more closely with our county and community partners to combat opioid addiction,” Raney said.