Wellington’s heroin town hall last Thursday provided glimpses of tragic missteps while also giving hope to those trying to escape the deadly grip of addiction.
“We used to see seven to nine cases of heroin addiction per year,” said The LCADA Way president and CEO Thomas Stuber. “Now, it is seven to nine per day. Last week, there were seven overdoses in a 24-hour period in Lorain County.”
Stuber joined a panel of area experts, law enforcement, and addiction survivors to answer questions and emphasize the serious nature of the heroin epidemic.
“A flood of chemicals in the brain takes control away from these people,” he said. “They need a support system that lasts long after the drug leaves their system.”
In 2013, Lorain County became the first area in Ohio to allow police officers to carry naloxone (sold under the brand name Narcan) — a life saving drug for someone overdosing. After saving 60 lives in Lorain County, the idea has spread throughout Ohio in the years since, said Stuber.
He added that naloxone is not the ultimate solution for someone in the middle of an overdose.
“The effects of drugs like heroin and fentanyl last longer than Narcan. “So even after administering Narcan, that person still needs to be taken to receive proper care immediately.”
Wellington police Lt. Jeff Shelton joined Stuber on the panel, and said his department will not arrest anyone who comes to officers for help with addiction.
“If we find you doing drugs in a car, you’re still going to be in trouble,” he said. “But if you come to us, I promise that we are going to help you.”
Police chief Tim Barfield said he all too often hears people say those battling addiction are not worth helping.
“The people who are selling and using drugs are criminals but we’re not fixing it that way,” he said. “We have to reach out and help these people. Tonight is all about opening doors and trying to take away some of these stigmas. They need to know that they can come to the police, fire department, churches, EMS, or whoever and get the help they need.”
Panelist Nicole Walmsley told her own story of addiction survival.
Because of her mother’s struggles with drugs, Walmsley was born predisposed to addiction. While giving birth to her first child at age 19, she was given Vicodin during the delivery, despite telling doctors on hand about her condition.
This led to a multi-year drug-induced nightmare for her that included being arrested 18 times.
“Society helped keep me sick,” said Walmsley. “After nearly overdosing on fentanyl, I literally begged for a prison sentence. The only way to get into Ohio’s best treatment facilities is to be a convicted felon.”
Walmsley served her time, got clean, and is now a recovery advocate for the Lodi police department.
“We really need to educate families and medical authorities of these side effects,” she said. “Some doctors even receive kickbacks for using certain company’s medications. People just need to know they if they’re serious about getting help, they need to find the right people and be ready to fight for their life.”
An audience of approximately 200 also viewed the documentary “Heroin: More Than a Drug,” created by Wellington’s Hunter Prunty and his cousin Evan Prunty. It illustrated the dangerous combination of deregulating the prescription drug industry and ignoring those who need help the most.
“It’s easy to put labels on drug addiction and think of it as just a criminal activity,” Hunter said. “But it can really happen to anyone. It happens to many without them even knowing it.”
“I’ve had people close to me who’ve been affected by heroin, and have even seen some pass away,” said Evan. “Stigmas make it hard for many people to talk about this out in the open.”
The film included interviews with Lorain County coroner Stephen Evans and Ashland County prosecutor Christopher Tunnell.
“In the 1990s, pharmaceutical companies produced studies that said powerful narcotics were safe for ailments like migraines,” said Evans. “Unfortunately, the government and physicians bought into this, which led to massive deregulation of the industry. This has played a huge role in heroin moving into the middle class and suburbia.”
Tunnell added that for someone who’s built up a dependency on prescription narcotics, the choice between $200 for Oxycontin or $40 for heroin is not a hard one to make.
Wellington Schools superintendent Dennis Mock told an emotional story of a late-night phone call he received in his days working as a principal. His sister asked whether her son, who was in the midst of addiction, could leave Las Vegas to come and live with Mock. Fearing that his nephew might get into trouble with drugs under his supervision, Mock declined the offer.
Two months later, his nephew was dead.
“I still remember those nights,” said Mock. “The support that is out here tonight shows the resources available in Lorain County. A parent, or anyone who is here tonight might be inspired to make that initial step in fighting addiction.”
Wellington mayor Hans Schneider closed out the meeting by saying the time to talk behind addiction victims’ backs is over, and that the answer is to talk to them.
“It’s time for us to get a handle on this,” he said. “The easiest way to make changes on a large level starts at the bottom. It’s going to be a grassroots effort that starts in communities, then makes its way up to state and federal lawmakers.”
Jonathan Delozier can be reached at 440-647-3171 or @DelozierNews on Twitter.
Photos by Jonathan Delozier | Wellington Enterprise Cousins Evan and Hunter Prunty created the documentary “Heroin: More Than a Drug.”