There’s a look of disgust painted on Stephen Evans’ face.
He shakes his head. “Some say we should just let them die,” he says. “That’s just not right. These are real people we’re talking about.”
Evans stands at the front of First United Methodist Church in Wellington. It’s Tuesday night, and he’s just finished telling a crowd of hundreds, who gathered in shared desperation, that the death toll from overdoses is now four people each week in Lorain County.
The Rev. Paul Wilson, hosting the town hall meeting with LINC of Southern Lorain County, has watched the drug wreak destruction.
His daughter, just 25 years old and raised in well-to-do Bay Village, has lost seven close friends to overdoses. The most recent death came just week ago.
“It touches all of us. We’re in this together,” he says.
Ohio now leads the country in heroin deaths, with a life snuffed out every five hours.
Evans watched 131 victims pass through the coroner’s office in Oberlin last year. They are usually 20 to 40 years old. The youngest was a two-year-old who found his parents’ stash, while the oldest was a 75-year-old grandfather sharing drugs with his grandson. Men and women number equally among heroin’s casualties.
Opiates have moved with “a scorched earth resolve,” without political agenda, gender preference, heedless of age, race, or income, said Wellington mayor Hans Schneider, who opened the town hall meeting.
“It’s a human issue. It’s an illness,” he said, the sad words reaching back and back over filled pews.
Among those who listened were the bereaved: One woman who said her child was the county’s 67th victim in 2012, another who counted seven months, 12 days since hers took his last breath. In the far back of the church stood the father of two sons — one who went to jail because of addiction and another who became a police officer.
Evans spoke of how overdose deaths rose from about 12 a year in Lorain County to 20 in 2011. Even with police carrying naloxone and reviving many victims, opiates consistently killed 60 or more a year from 2012 to 2015.
When dealers started cutting heroin last year with other drugs, the death toll tripled.
“No one dies of pure heroin. Yeah, I get a few. But 90 percent of the deaths I see are combination drugs,” he said, describing how fentanyl in particular is dangerously potent.
We are not running- out of victims. For every one who dies, there are 800 others who are risk in Lorain County, Evans said. A huge segment of the population — one in every six people — is wrestling with addiction.
The good news is that police, armed with naloxone (sold as Narcan), are saving lives. They’ve revived more than 300 people since Lorain County became the first in the state to let officers carry the anti-overdose spray.
Because of those results, all police statewide now carry naloxone and have saved more than 1,000 people.
The bad news, said The LCADA Way president Thomas Stuber, is the drug problem is getting worse, not better. Today’s drugs are stronger and more destructive than ever before.
Heroin is more addictive to young people “than anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes,” he said.
To someone in their 60s or 70s, narcotics induce sleepiness. But for a 20-year-old, the same drug would cause a large discharge of chemicals in the brain, inducing a euphoria more powerful than the kick of cocaine or the thrill of sex, said Stuber.
Now consider that five percent of Lorain County high school students have tried heroin, up from zero percent five years ago, and you see the scope of the threat.
But we shouldn’t fear addicts, Stuber said. Addiction is a neurological disease, causing chemical changes in the brain, stealing control and warping the user’s values.
THERE IS HOPE
What can be done to stem the tide?
Stop taking prescription painkillers, said Evans. Years ago, doctors bought into the hype that opioid painkillers were non-addictive and safe — and now we know that’s not true.
In most cases, acetaminophen will get you through your pain.
In fact, the coroner travels around the county asking dentists to slow prescriptions because so many people slide into addiction after having their wisdom teeth removed.
Those painkillers can be dangerous even when stashed away. Eighty percent of children start their drug habit via the family medicine cabinet, making parents their first “dealers.”
People ask Evans all the time: Why don’t we just arrest all the drug dealers?
“What are we going to do, arrest all the parents?” he replies.
Wilson said the most important message of the town hall was to trust police, firefighters, EMTs, churches, and schools, where you can turn for help.
It was Wellington police chief Tim Barfield who, a year ago, stepped forward and declared it was time to stop arresting addicts and start showing them compassion. Since then, the Lorain County Sheriff’s Office and several other police agencies in the county have offered safe haven to addicts.
In the past year, 15 people have gone to Wellington police for help and 11 have been placed in treatment facilities.
You can also call The LCADA Way at 440-989-4900, the Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services Board of Lorain County 24-hour help-line at 440-277-8190, or Let’s Get Real at 440-963-7042.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.