WHY SMALL TOWN AMERICA IS HARDEST HIT BY DRUG ADDICTIONBack to Discuss »
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention there were over 47,000 drug overdose deaths in the United States in 2014. Opioids like painkillers and heroin contributed to more than half of those fatalities. In recent years, drug overdoses have claimed more lives than gun or car accidents and it’s now the leading cause of injury death in the country.
The opioid epidemic currently sweeping the nation is markedly different than the heroin wave of past decades. Today’s swift and widespread opioid market leaves no community unscathed; heroin is so cheap and so powerful, a stereotypical user defies the demographic and socio-economic trends often associated with inner-city drug use of the ‘80s. Today, heroin addiction cripples more middle-class people than ever, and overdose deaths in rural areas outnumber the death rates in metropolitan cities for the first time.
Chillicothe, Ohio’s own battle against the opioid epidemic mirrors the national uptick in rural drug overdose deaths. According to the Ross County Coroner’s Office annual report, 39 people died of overdose in 2015, an increase from the 31 reported drug overdoses in 2014. In a town of 20,000 people, 39 drug deaths in one year is a jarring statistic that leaves many long-time residents struggling to reconcile how a drug like heroin entered their community in the first place.
SMALL TOWN STRUGGLES
States like Pennsylvania and West Virginia serve as perfect case studies for the rapid explosion of opioid drug abuse in small town America. Areas of the Rust Belt, the Great Lakes, and the Northeast are characterized by small-town isolation, unemployment, and low educational attainment – all of which act as catalysts to drug abuse, and more specifically, heroin addiction. From bored teenagers with easy access to a cheap high to middle-class men who were prescribed painkillers after a workplace injury – heroin ripples through rural communities at a devastating rate.
When a community becomes afflicted by drug abuse there is a significant increase in other illegal activities, like violent crimes and theft. At the same time, overall health status and academic performances decline. Once a drug epidemic erupts, rural communities struggle to combat the flames; there are simply too few resources for treatment, recovery, and prevention to contain the problem – and so the fire spreads.
In August of 2015, Washington County (of Washington, Pa.) reported 25 overdoses and three deaths over the course of two days. 16 of the 25 overdoses happened in the first 24 hours. Numbers like that are typically proportional with factors such bad batches of heroin (oftentimes laced with the synthetic opioid, Fentanyl) or a large gathering of users partying and overdosing in the same location – but that’s not what happened in Washington last August. Instead, the only explanation for multiple overdoses in one night was becoming their new normal. It’s a terrifying example of what’s happening more and more frequently within the small communities plagued by rampant drug abuse.
HOW CHILLICOTHE IS FIGHTING BACK
A recent change in the state law means the opioid reversal drug Naloxone, commonly referred to as Narcan, is more widely available across Chillicothe. EMS squads, Sheriff’s deputies, and police officers are now carrying the drug and pharmacies have begun selling Narcan to customers without a prescription, which means anyone can purchase and administer the drug in the event of an overdose.
With major highways running through Ross County, the battle to keep drugs out of Chillicothe continues. In an effort to interfere with typical drug routes, the Ohio Highway Patrol, the sheriff’s office, and city police have teamed up to better monitor drug trafficking in the area. Additionally, a Ross County Common Pleas Judge now presides over a new treatment-focused program designed for specific kinds of drug offenders. The court-supervised program allows those who have plead guilty to delay findings of guilt for a year so that the offender can participate in the program. Upon successful completion of the program, the judge can dismiss the case at the end of the year.
After Chillicothe’s record number of fatal overdoses in 2015, prosecutor Matthew Schmidt, in conjunction with local law enforcement, was forced to take drastic action. In January, Schmidt announced an overdose amnesty policy that allows people at the scene of an overdosing user to avoid prosecution for low-level drug crimes. City Law Director Sherri Rutherford, Police Chief Keith Washburn, and Sheriff George Lavender all echo the same sentiment – a hope that the law will motivate users to care more about helping someone receive critical assistance at a time of need and worry less about small amounts of drugs or paraphernalia at the scene.
The bold measure was not met without controversial public opinion, but an editorial released by the Chillicothe Gazette in early January encouraged the community to see the big picture. The article, titled Overdose Amnesty Will Help Save Lives, reads “Schmidt and the law enforcement deserve credit for stepping forward and working to find a valuable instrument in the fight against heroin abuse.” It concludes by saying, “Schmidt’s bold step is not the answer in full, but it is a move in the right direction. We can't arrest our way out of the drug problem, but saving lives is the goal.”
If Chillicothe’s new overdose amnesty program succeeds in decreasing the number of overdose related deaths, it could inspire other cities to follow suit – especially smaller communities that are desperate for solutions. For now, Chillicothe is willing to incorporate experimental laws and programs to prevent the opioid epidemic from inflicting more damage on their tight knit community.
Follow the story in Chillicothe as it unfolds. Tune in to The Vanishing Women – All New Mondays @ 10/9c on Investigation Discovery