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Guest Column: Heroin crisis requires all of Summit County to work together

by Sherri Bevan Walsh | Summit County Prosecutor Published: September 20, 2016 4:36 PM

The numbers are staggering.

Since January of this year, emergency crews have responded to over 500 heroin overdose calls in Akron alone. And in the month of July, nearly 30 people died in Akron from taking heroin or heroin laced with fentanyl or even worse, carfentanil. That's a new, dangerous and highly potent drug to hit Summit County streets. Carfentanil is not even prescribed for people, used only by zoos to sedate large animals like elephants. Just touching carfentanil can be deadly.

County officials say they expect the number of people to die from overdoses to either match or exceed last year's number. In 2015, over 150 people died in Summit County from taking heroin or fentanyl.

The numbers are almost too much to comprehend. Heroin has engulfed our community. If it hasn't impacted your family, check with your neighbors. The heroin crisis does not just involve someone doing the drug. Maybe you notice pain medication prescribed to you is missing. Or someone broke into your car and stole loose change. Or maybe you discover you have spoons missing. These could be signs of a heroin addict.

And the image of a heroin user has changed. No longer is it the desperate junkie on the street corner, hidden in the shadows. Four out of five new heroin users first became addicted to prescription painkillers before trying heroin. These are people who were treated by a doctor for pain -- whether it was following a surgery, or a broken bone, or even a trip to the dentist.

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They are your family members, your neighbors, your friends. And they have names. Tyler Bornstein. Marcus Ralston. Alicia Dice. Andrew Frye. Jessica Holmes. All died from heroin. And heroin does not discriminate. It is in every community and impacts every age group, ethnicity, and gender. It is an equal opportunity killer.

So what can be done to stop this health crisis? My office has been proactive in tackling drug charges with a two pronged approach: prosecution and prevention.

The Summit County Prosecutor's Office is one of the more aggressive offices in the state when it comes to holding people accountable for peddling this poison. Since 2013, we have had 22 people convicted of involuntary manslaughter for either selling or providing heroin or fentanyl to someone who died from taking the drug. Those defendants were sentenced to significant prison time, with one sentenced to 21 years in prison in connection with several other drug offenses. And just last year alone, over 500 people were indicted in Summit County for heroin-related offenses.

But it's not always about throwing people in jail. For a number of those who are arrested and charged, they become eligible for court-supervised treatment programs such as Turning Point. Summit County's Turning Point program is a special court which handles cases involving non-violent offenders who face drug charges. For at least a year, defendants are strictly supervised, go through drug testing and are offered treatment services. The hope is that this will get them on the path to recovery.

The prosecutor's office also takes an active role in drug prevention. Assistant prosecutors and other prosecutor office employees interact with members of the community to inform them of ways to stay safe. We have spoken to thousands of people, even connecting with middle school students, letting them know of the dangers of drug use. People need to understand that heroin kills and the first time you use it may be the last time you do anything.

Aug. 31 was International Overdose Awareness Day. We must work together to stop this health crisis from spreading. Keep your eyes open for any suspicious activity in your neighborhood. Know the facts about prescription pain medication.

The U.S. Surgeon General recently made history by sending a letter to every single doctor in the United States, asking for their help with the country's opioid epidemic. The letter urges doctors to sign a pledge to do three things: treat pain safely and effectively, screen patients to make sure they are properly using prescription medication, and inform and educate the public about treating addiction as a chronic illness.

Together we can battle heroin, and win.

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