OTTAWA — In the fight against heroin, preventing people from ever trying the drug is the logical first step.
With a drug this potent, even a first-time user can develop a full-blown heroin addiction rather quickly. As more people experiment, the number of addicts increases, and drug treatment centers find themselves overwhelmed with the number of users trying to get clean.
Those who can’t get help or refuse to admit they have a problem often wind up in jail for possession and distribution of the drug, or for committing some other crime that was fueled by their addiction.
Though drug prevention programs such as the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program have been around for decades, the prevalence of heroin in Ohio and the rest of the U.S. is ever-increasing. To address the growing epidemic, everyone from police officers and school administrators to politicians and community leaders are collaborating to stop heroin’s push.
Through a variety of programs and initiatives, most of which are youth-focused, the goal remains the same: Intervene before it’s too late.
To help prevent drug use before it starts, Ohio Gov. John Kasich launched Start Talking! in January 2014.
Start Talking! is a statewide youth drug prevention initiative that incorporates various strategies to promote the importance of having drug-free conversations with young people.
The program features three components designed to provide parents, teachers, guardians and community leaders with the tools to get the conversation started.
Parents 360 Rx is a community education program meant to increase knowledge of the dangers of substance abuse among adults. The hope is that more conversations will occur at home and in the community to deter drug use. Parents360 Rx tool kits are available free-of-charge, and include a video, discussion guide and other tools for decreasing the risk of children taking illegal drugs.
Know! is a drug prevention and awareness partnership that targets parents and caregivers. The goal is to increase communication between parents and their children about substance use. This is achieved through free, twice-monthly emails that offer tips for families to help them talk on the subject.
5 Minutes for Life is a program led by the Ohio State Highway Patrol, the Ohio National Guard and local law enforcement in partnership with high schools and the Ohio High School Athletic Association. Troopers, law enforcement officers and National Guard members talk to student athletes to encourage them to become ambassadors who lead peer-to-peer conversations that promote healthy lifestyles.
Jan Osborn, superintendent of the Putnam County Educational Service Center, has been working with the state to help implement these programs in the region. He said in order for the programs to be effective, everyone must work together.
“What we’re trying to do is get commitments from agencies, schools, church groups and parents so that we can provide a more formalized approach,” Osborn said. “The schools can’t do it alone, we need community involvement and the parents to take on this challenge also.”
Osborn said he was skeptical of the program at first, but after learning more about how serious the heroin epidemic is, he is now passionate about tackling the problem.
“I’m becoming more and more convinced that to do nothing is morally wrong,” he said. “Start Talking! isn’t the only component necessary to stop this, but to me it’s an excellent program to start with.”
Osborn said he understands that once someone gets addicted, the chance that they fully recover is slim. For this reason, he said he believes starting the conversation early is crucial.
“For them to fight and win is becoming a rare battle, so it’s important that we be there before they take that first chance,” he said. “I think it’s common sense that whenever there’s a potential danger, we need to alert anyone who may be susceptible to that danger.
“Since kids are often more susceptible to peer pressure, we need to empower them to have the knowledge and resilience to not make bad decisions.”
In Lima, the Urban Minority Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Outreach Program is using a two-pronged approach to prevent substance use among young people.
Through the organization’s Prevention Wellness and Education Center, the community’s youth are able to participate in a variety of activities that serve as an alternative to drug use.
UMADAOP has an after-school and summer program that allows school-age children to participate in sports, join clubs such as the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, take field trips, and work as a team on a variety of projects. This summer, the program’s participants are involved in a community garden project.
“There are a lot of young people who sometimes don’t get the opportunity to do a lot of these alternative activities, so we provide them with those opportunities to get involved,” said Marcell King, assistant director of Lima UMADAOP. “It’s positive alternatives to the things that are happening on the streets.”
The programs are held in the summer and between 3 and 6 p.m. during the school year, which King said is the time when most young people get into trouble. UMADAOP also has youth-led programming, allowing high school and college-aged students to serve as positive mentors to younger children.
The other part of UMADAOP’s drug prevention effort centers around education.
“Part of promoting a healthy lifestyle is educating young people on the negative things that drugs and alcohol can bring,” King said, “so we spend quite a bit of time teaching them those different aspects.”
As school and community leaders are attempting to prevent people from getting started on heroin, law enforcement officials are busy trying to stop the drug from entering the hands of those who seek it.
Lt. Scott Wyckhouse runs the Ohio State Highway Patrol’s District 1 Criminal Patrol Team. The district covers 11 Ohio counties, working with local law enforcement to prevent heroin and other drugs from being transported to the areas it serves.
Wyckhouse said this is carried out through what is called an “enforcement blitz.”
“For two days, we boost our manpower, we have more K9 units, and increase traffic enforcement in the city or county we’re in,” Wyckhouse said. “It’s a cooperative effort.”
Recently, the criminal patrol team held an enforcement blitz in Allen County, and were able to seize 40 grams of heroin.
While the OSHP and other law enforcement agencies aren’t able to set up drug checkpoints like they do for alcohol, Wyckhouse said officers are trained to look for drug activity on traffic stops.
“With narcotics, everything has to get from point A to point B, so the best way to find these drugs is through traffic enforcement,” he said. “When our officers pull someone over, they are trained to look for criminal indicators. It seems to be a pretty successful way of interdicting drugs.”
Though traffic enforcement has allowed police officers to seize countless amounts of drugs like heroin, Wyckhouse said they are only “scratching the surface.”
“It’s hard to say we’re successful,” he said. “You may have taken some [drugs] off the streets, and even saved lives, but there’s still more out there.”
Wyckhouse said that while heroin and other drugs are as prevalent as ever, there has been an increased emphasis on combating drug trafficking. In 2014, Ohio Attorney General Mike Dewine awarded more than $500,000 to law enforcement to combat the flow of heroin along Interstate 75.
“The last several years, there’s started to be an uptick in our enforcement effort in drug trafficking,” Wyckhouse said. “In our division, we’re trying to give the best training to the younger and newer guys on what to look for and focus on.
“I feel that we’re putting forth quite an effort, but unfortunately, more manpower and resources are always needed to combat this problem.”
Reach John Bush at 567-242-0456 or on Twitter @bush_lima