By RON CRAIG
FOSTORIA REVIEW TIMES CORRESPONDENT
COLUMBUS — Thousands of public safety officials from Ohio attended an emergency conference in Columbus this week to discuss the state’s fight against the heroin epidemic.
The one-day summit on Thursday, called by Attorney General Mike DeWine, was attended by an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 public safety officials, most of whom were from law enforcement agencies.
The main purpose of the meeting was to share ideas on dealing with the drug problem, particularly heroin.
Hancock County Sheriff Michael Heldman and state Rep. Robert Sprague, R-Findlay, served on various panels during the gathering. Heldman was part of a panel discussing how jail officials handle prisoners who are addicted to drugs, and Sprague discussed ways the state Legislature is addressing addiction.
“Next week, we will be introducing a bill that will address (lawsuits against) law enforcement and others who administer Narcan to save the lives of those who have overdosed,” Sprague said. He said first responders should be protected against lawsuits when they are trying to save lives.
Narcan is the trade name for the drug naloxone, which is administered to people who have overdosed on narcotics. While paramedics can administer the drug through a syringe with a needle into the skin, other first responders such as firefighters, law enforcement officials and emergency medical technicians who are not paramedics can give Narcan via a nasal spray solution.
Other legislation currently being considered includes a bill requiring hospice care providers to destroy narcotics after their patients pass away, in an effort to keep drugs out of the hands of others.
Many teens start out by taking narcotic painkillers, Sprague said.
“Kids go to parties where they drink alcohol and take pills they think are safe, because adults take them as prescribed medication,” he said.
As several speakers pointed out, use and abuse of opioid painkillers, including oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, codeine, and Fentanyl, are, in many cases, the precursor to heroin.
As the effect of oral painkillers subside with their use over time, addicts turn to heroin, which is injected using a needle and syringe. Heroin is also cheaper to buy than many opioid pills.
DeWine opened Thursday’s meeting by saying that heroin has become a problem that crosses all socioeconomic and racial fields.
“We cannot arrest our way out of this problem,” DeWine told the gathering, referring to the “old school” notion of busting addicts and throwing them in jail. “Drug addiction is an illness that needs treatment.”
Throughout the conference, speaker after speaker echoed DeWine’s words.
The attorney general acknowledged it has been difficult for some law enforcement officials to change their way of thinking about drug addiction. While DeWine agreed that taking illegal drugs is still a crime, he said the best way to address the problem is treatment.
“It’s been a real cultural change for them,” DeWine said, referring to the manner in which law enforcement must now deal with drug addiction and the treatment for it.
DeWine’s view of drug dealers, however, is anything but “soft.” He emphasized the importance of putting dealers in prison. Several other speakers told of cases in which drug dealers are now being charged with and convicted of manslaughter when someone has overdosed and died.
Death from overdose is occurring in a growing number of cases, DeWine said. The attorney general said the main objective of all public safety officials, including law enforcement, is to save lives.
Sheriff Heldman told the gathering his jail is a 98-bed facility, and it’s common to see prisoners dealing with addictions to heroin and other drugs.
Those prisoners are entered into a detoxification program that assists them with their drug addictions. That is accomplished, he said, by working with mental health and addiction services professionals.
The sheriff said some are jailed for drug offenses, but others may be incarcerated for another offense that is linked to their drug abuse, such as theft or breaking and entering.
Heldman said the key to success is working with other resources to fund programs that assist those with drug addictions. Another integral part of the program is assisting the inmates in efforts to secure jobs.
Many heroin-related deaths have been attributed to the drug being laced, or mixed, with other drugs, such as Fentanyl. Fentanyl, it was noted during the seminar, is normally used in the treatment of cancer and is 50 percent stronger than heroin.
Officials also noted most heroin is coming into Ohio from Mexico via Texas; Memphis, Tennessee; and Lexington, Kentucky, while most cocaine comes from California via Chicago.
DeWine was in Toledo Friday to tout a program started by Lucas County Sheriff John Tharp, the Drug Abuse Response Team. Tharp outlined the program at the conference Thursday.
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