Tony Couch knows he could have been one of the 49 people who died of a heroin overdose in Butler County last year.
Couch, 29, a Hamilton High School graduate, was arrested for shoplifting in 2011, a crime he says he committed to support his heroin habit. He was nabbed by police boosting laundry detergent, a hot item to trade for the illegal opiate. Butler County Area II Judge Kevin McDonough sent Couch to treatment and he hasn’t used since.
Today, Couch has changed his circle of friends and even distances himself from relatives who are also addicted. For him Sojourner Recovery Services worked, but it is a constant struggle to stay clean.
“That’s what it takes, you have to get away from the old friends and people who are still using,” Couch said.
According to the Butler County Coroner’s Office, in the first three months of 2015, five deaths have been attributed to heroin overdose, four to a overdose of heroin and fentanyl (a strong painkiller) and 36 overdose deaths that are suspected to be from heroin, but have not yet been ruled on.
Couch said educating young people about the effects of heroin is a key to stopping its wildfire-like spread in the region.
“They need to know it is not like drinking or smoking weed. It will kill you,” Couch said. “And you have been be honest about it.”
Couch has joined forces with Candy Murray Abbott and Tammie Norris, both mothers to young adults who are recovering heroin addicts. The women founded Heroin Control and became very vocal about the drug’s stronghold on the area when they held a 2013 rally in front of the Government Services Center on High Street in Hamilton. Another heroin awareness rally is scheduled for 3 p.m. April 20 at the same location.
The women have remained vocal and involved with the fight, including advocating for funding of the opiate-blocking drug Vivitrol and honest education about heroin.
“Treatment is what has to happen for those already addicted,” Abbott said. “But I believe what has to happen to stop the problem is education in schools.”
She said she will talk to any group and any school, which is a move both Sheriff Richard Jones and Butler County Prosecutor Michael Gmoser have also taken.
“There is such a stigma about heroin. We talk to our children about other things that will harm them, but not heroin,” Abbott said. “They have to know people are dying from it.”
Law enforcement on the front lines agree that educating children so they never use is key because dealers are not shy about getting the drug into their hands.
Police chiefs in Middletown and Hamilton say the solution to the heroin scourge has both medical and criminal aspects.
“I believe this is a community issue and not simply a law enforcement problem,” said Hamilton Police Chief Craig Bucheit. “Because this problem is so large and so pervasive it requires a comprehensive and community wide solution.”
That solution, he said, involves education, prevention, counseling and treatment as well as enforcement.
Middletown Police Chief Rodney Muterspaw echoed that idea.
“It takes everyone putting their heads together … police, hospitals, churches,” Muterspaw said, noting that unlike other drugs, heroin’s make up is so addictive that people don’t care about overdosing.
In 1993, Muterspaw was a detective in the department’s Special Operations Unit and made an arrest and seized heroin.
“I didn’t know what it was,” Muterspaw said, noting that at the at time police were fighting cocaine and crack cocaine.
“Now it is rare to have anyone arrested with any drug other than heroin,” he said.
The effect of the drug on families and the community is catastrophic, because it also fuels other crime. Addicts will do just about anything to fund their habit.
Hamilton Municipal Court Judge Dan Gattermeyer said heroin and the crimes it fuels, including robbery, theft and breaking and entering, account for a “gigantic” portion of his case load.
“I’d say it is about 70 percent,” Gattermeyer said. The judge said it is “really difficult to beat without medication, and we direct people to treatment. Vivitrol has been successful.”
The judge said it is a little be different mindset with heroin because it is so addictive. Treatment, not jail, is often the answer, if the person is willing.
“But the people who are just selling, making money off other people’s misery, those are the ones who deserve everything they get,” Gattermeyer said.
Middletown Municipal Court Judge Mark W. Wall agrees treatment is needed, but plans to stop the source also need some teeth.
“The federal government has got to get serious about doing something about border security and going after the cartels. It is coming from Mexico,” Wall said. “We have got to get aggressive with stopping the supply and getting people treatment.”
He noted his court has also had success with ordering Vivitrol treatment, but it only works if the person is willing. Often it is enough to get them clean so they can experience a life without addiction.
“Loosing 47 people in a year is uncalled for and unacceptable,” Wall said. “If we had 47 cases of measles in a year, we would make national news and everyone would be responding to stop it.”
Sgt. Mike Hackney, who leads the Butler County Sheriff’s Office regional narcotics unit, agreed tightening the border “is going to be a biggie” in stopping the heroin supply.
Hackney said heroin is more prevalent than any drug he has seen in his career. The drug of the 1960s and ’70s had a resurgence when people abused opiate pain pills that eventually became better regulated and more expensive.
“What is bad for us is heroin is cheap,” Hackney said. “The price is remaining low so a lot of people can afford it.” He added that the addiction is so strong users will actually seek out a dealer when they learn someone overdosed on his heroin.
“They are not thinking about dying or don’t care,” Hackney said.
Last month, U.S. Sen Rob Portman introduced the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2015 the would provide a series of incentives and resources designed to encourage states and local communities to pursue a full array of proven strategies to combat heroin addiction.
Through Portman’s role on the Homeland Security Committee, he plans to thoroughly review any federal proposals designed to strengthen border security to stop harmful drugs from entering the country.
“In order to get a handle on the heroin epidemic in our community, we must get beyond a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach,” Portman said. “To prevent drug abuse and better help the tens of thousands of Ohioans struggling with addiction, we need a comprehensive strategy that starts from the bottom up. I’ve introduced legislation that builds on proven methods to enable law enforcement to respond to this epidemic and supports long-term recovery by connecting prevention and education efforts with treatment programs.”
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown added: “Communities across Ohio have seen the devastating effects of opioid and heroin addiction, which has become one of our nation’s most challenging public health issues. More needs to be done to combat the rise of opiate abuse in Ohio and across the country. I have written to both the Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services on this issue, urging the Administration to prioritize the prescription opioid and heroin epidemic and confront it head on. Last year, at Samaritan Behavioral Health in Dayton, I announced my support of legislation to increase the number of opioid addiction treatment providers available and allow providers with a proven track record of success to treat more patients.”
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