Gary Abernathy is publisher and editor of the (Hillsboro, Ohio) Times-Gazette.
There is an ongoing terrorist attack happening in Ohio. It has nothing to do with the Islamic State or political anarchists. The weapons in this case come in the form of heroin and other opioids, and the terrorists are the pushers who spread the deadly poison.
From the Columbus Dispatch this spring: “At least 4,149 Ohioans died from unintentional drug overdoses in 2016, a 36 percent leap from just the previous year, when Ohio had by far the most overdose deaths in the nation. . . . Many coroners said that 2017’s overdose fatalities are outpacing 2016’s.”
Consider that number — 4,149 overdose deaths in Ohio in one year, more than the number who died on 9/11.
The worst of the state’s opioid problems are here in southern Ohio. The Highland County coroner provided our newspaper, the Times-Gazette, with a recap of cases from 2016 showing at least 16 overdose deaths in this small rural county. He also pointed to 50 deaths during the year from other causes where drug use or a history of drug use were present.
Even non-fatal overdoses are taxing local resources. During the first three weeks of May, emergency responders answered calls to at least 18 overdoses around the county, almost three times as many as during the same period a year ago. The public information officer for the local fire and emergency medical services department called it “the new normal.”
This is all happening around little Hillsboro, a town often compared with television’s idyllic Mayberry. With the FBI reporting that most heroin enters the United States from Mexico, and local officials saying that it then makes its way here through metropolitan drug rings, it’s no wonder that few people in Hillsboro think President Trump’s border security plans are extreme.
Like other forms of terrorism, the opioid attack will have a generational impact, in this case in a foster-care crisis being left in its wake. In December 2015, our newspaper reported that “a focused crackdown on drug abuse by local law enforcement — a focus applauded by nearly everyone — has led to the unintended consequence of more children who are left homeless.”
Our most recent article on the subject, in April, reported that there were more than 100 children in foster care, costing our county about $1.9 million annually. With just 15 foster parents in all of Highland County, “many children must be placed in other counties, incurring higher costs.”
The drug crisis is leading to some controversial initiatives. Our local health commissioner recently unveiled a program to supply free naloxone, an opioid inhibitor, to people who attend training on how and when to administer it to overdose victims. Many residents oppose the idea, arguing that the same users are being revived time and again, but the commissioner responds that his agency is charged with saving lives.
Opioids come in legal form, too, and Ohio’s attorney general, Mike DeWine, recently sued the pharmaceutical industry, accusing drugmakers of contributing to the problem through misleading marketing campaigns.
After I briefly mentioned the overdose epidemic in a recent op-ed for The Post about our region’s support for Trump, I heard from readers claiming that Trump’s 2018 budget does little to fight the opioid problem. Maybe, but the statistics show that what we have been doing is not working, which indicates we should not just keep doing more of it.
Some local officials have begun tackling the heroin crisis more aggressively, especially since recent batches have been laced with fentanyl, an even deadlier drug. Fentanyl is largely a Chinese export, which presents Trump with an opportunity to insist on a crackdown as a bargaining chip in what appears to be his effort toward better trade relations with China.
Our local prosecutor has begun charging those accused of supplying fentanyl-laced heroin to overdose victims with involuntary manslaughter, rather than treating these simply as accidental deaths. If that approach is more widely adopted, drug pushers who are arrested but typically back on the streets in short order will instead find themselves behind bars under stiffer charges more representative of the death and carnage they are causing.
In southern Ohio, the opioid problem is beyond mere fodder for partisan budgetary debates. We’re dealing with purveyors of poison carrying out a real-time assault on our communities. When it comes to the flow of deadly drugs into the United States and communities such as Hillsboro, we have to combat it outside the scope of typical drug abuse prevention programs.
Our vaunted “war on drugs” has long represented little more than benign phraseology. But it has become a real war, and the drug cartels and pushers here and abroad are enemy combatants. Until we respond as we would to any terrorist attack, the casualties will continue to mount. That may sound extreme, but the rising death toll suggests otherwise.