OTTAWA — There was a time when deputies in the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office thought their quiet farming county was relatively safe from “big city” problems such as heroin, but that time has long since passed.
“Several years ago, we heard in our statewide sheriffs (meeting) about this from the southern sheriffs,” Putnam County Sheriff Tim Meyer said. “It seemed like it had come down there much earlier compared to us. In some ways, we were feeling pretty good about it, that it hadn’t come here. But we have to face reality that it is here, and we’re watching it grow each year.”
Reports on the number of heroin overdose deaths in Putnam County reflect this new reality, with totals going from zero in 2013 to four in 2014 to five in 2015, with three 2016 deaths already reported as of early May.
“Four more would have died if it wasn’t for (anti-opiate drug naloxone),” Meyer told the Ottawa Area Chamber of Commerce during its May meeting.
Clearly, even quiet Putnam County is no longer immune to the nationwide wildfire that is heroin addiction, which continues to grow throughout the region. In Allen County, for instance, one to two residents die each week from a heroin overdose, officials said.
Fighting an uphill battle
Meyer has seen firsthand how tight of a grip heroin addiction can have on people, with one recent example being the escape of 22-year-old Breonna Stephens from the county’s Adult Detention Center. Stephens had a furlough to attend a funeral, but she did not return to the jail, choosing instead to seek out her old lifestyle, according to Meyer.
“Physically, she had withdrawn, but mentally, she had not,” he said. “That’s how desperate these people are when they become addicted.”
For drug investigators in the Lima Police Department, witnessing heroin’s death grip on addicts can be frustrating, even overwhelming, with some cases hitting close to home.
“I had a girl who I grew up with,” drug investigator Deana Lauck said. “I came across her because I bought dope from her. I sat and talked with her for hours and hours. She was in custody for weeks and had gone through withdrawals, and the first thing she did when she got out was go right back to it.”
Similar difficulties have also been encountered in Auglaize County, with the Grand Lake Drug Task Force dealing with a steady stream of heroin flowing north from Dayton.
“It is very frustrating,” Auglaize County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Mike Vorhees said. “We do see a lot of repeat offenders, but we also know it’s a very addictive drug. I’ve witnessed where we’ve had kids in the car while they’re doing deals. I had one girl I arrested, and I interviewed her and she told me that she never thought she’d get wrapped up in heroin.
“She came from a good family and had a good home life and she got mixed in with the wrong crowd. She told me, ‘I never wanted to be that addict mom.’”
Going to the dogs
As the battle against heroin has increased, both in scope and severity, both law enforcement and the court system have been compelled to look at this issue differently than they would have with other drugs, such as cocaine and marijuana.
In Putnam County, for instance, the sheriff’s office sought private and corporate donations to bring two police dogs to the county. While Meyer acknowledges these dogs will come with numerous benefits for county law enforcement when they begin work in mid-July, one of the primary motivators for bringing these dogs in is to help curb the heroin trade in the county.
“Our biggest problem has been locating the drugs, and unless a courier is nice enough to leave it on the front seat, detection and probable cause for a search is minimal,” he said. “That’s where the canines can play such a key role because with their acute sense of smell, they can find things and alert you to things that are present that the officer would otherwise not be aware of.”
Can’t ‘arrest your way out’
While law enforcement agencies remain committed to pursuing and arresting heroin traffickers, there has been a shift in tone when it comes to dealing with those addicted to the drug, with a greater emphasis placed on treatment rather than simply getting drug addicts off the streets and behind bars.
“You’re going to have to treat the problem rather than just try to arrest your way out of it,” Meyer said. “Once they get addicted to this, the addiction is so strong, and it seems to last so long, they have to have some treatment and support mechanism, or they’re almost guaranteed to go back.”
To addicts, of course, this may not seem like a big difference at first, since this treatment-based approach also begins with an arrest, Lima Police Chief Kevin Martin said.
“We will arrest those people we find possessing drugs, whether we think they’re dealers or not, on the appropriate charges,” he said, “but in part, because it’s a vehicle to get them into treatment, whether it’s through drug court or other means.”
This approach puts police in a position where they become part of that “rock bottom” moment, whether it is through making an arrest or, with more police cruisers now carrying anti-opiate drug naloxone, being on hand to administer a life-saving drug during an overdose.
“I think for society as a whole, heroin is getting a lot more attention because we have a lot more people who are dying from overdoses,” Martin said. “It’s now getting the attention of politicians and others in society because it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t know someone who has been affected by this.”
Lauck added, “You could have a state senator now whose kid is using. It’s affecting everyone now.”
‘It was everywhere’
Addiction to heroin soon leads to desperation for many users, compelling them to lie, cheat, steal or do whatever else it takes to be able to buy that next hit. Local and county courts quickly began to see the flood of cases stemming from this, leading to the drug court initiative.
Lima Municipal Court Judge Tammie Hursh helped start the first local municipal drug court nearly a year ago after seeing more opiate-related cases coming before her.
“It was everywhere,” she said. “It was across the board — all ages, areas, educational levels. At this point, it would be rare for a day to go by where we don’t see someone addicted to opiates.”
Hursh also saw that, in many of these cases, if it were not for the addiction, these people would likely be law-abiding citizens. For them, the drug court is an ideal way of facilitating long-term treatment.
“They will still, in most cases, serve some time in jail,” she said. “That is very important, to ensure they are off the drugs. We have treatment already established and ready to go when they’re released.”
That treatment can include medicinal-based treatment as well as therapy, with those in treatment consistently monitored to help prevent relapses.
“Since we started, we’ve done 1,224 blood screens, and 1,192 have come back negative,” Hursh said.
Where was all of this?
With heroin now entrenched in affluent suburbs and small towns, as well as the inner city, concerns have been raised as to whether this is why law enforcement is looking at new treatment options.
For Hursh, this drug is reaching everyone, everywhere, no matter the ethnic or socioeconomic background, and that is prompting this response.
“It’s all about the numbers now,” she said.
Those higher numbers are also coming with higher stakes than other drugs, with heroin now killing one to two Allen County residents every week.
“Should we have been doing all of this 20 years ago and should this have been more out there?” Lauck said. “Yeah, it should have, but that line has been crossed where people are dying now.”
Reach Craig Kelly at 567-242-0390 or on Twitter @Lima_CKelly.