In 2014, heroin and prescription painkiller abuse was growing as a drug problem in Athens County. After some significant arrests impacted the supply of those drugs, and users grew wary of possible overdose, law-enforcement officials say methamphetamine is now on the rise instead.
Athens-Hocking-Fairfield Major Crimes Unit Commander Dennis Lowe said Tuesday that this is true across all three counties served by the specialized task force, of which the Athens County Major Crimes Unit is a part.
“We’re seeing more and more methamphetamine become available, and it is being used not only by people who prefer stimulants but by people who have opioid issues, or heroin issues, using (meth) for a number of different reasons,” he said.
Some use meth to try to come up off of a heroin high, he said, while others with addiction issues are switching to meth as a way to try to get off opiates.
While most of the meth in Athens County is still produced locally by home “cooks” in the traditional powder form, Lowe said Athens is starting to see what’s been happening more in the other two counties – meth brought to the area in bulk through Mexican drug cartel supply lines that stretch to the American Southwest.
“In Hocking and Fairfield counties, it’s all almost exclusively cartel methamphetamine, or ‘Ice,’” he said, adding that the nickname comes from the cartel meth’s resemblance to shards of glass or crystals. This meth is either produced in Mexico or the border states, and makes its way to Columbus, where it’s then brought to southeast Ohio in smaller quantities.
Lowe said the tri-county MCU is working with Columbus-area law enforcement and the federal Drug Enforcement Agency while also keeping up efforts to tackle local suppliers.
“What we largely see is a user-based population who travel to the source cities like Columbus,” Lowe said. “They get a supply of methamphetamine or heroin – typically five to 20 grams, maybe an ounce – and then they bring that back to their respective communities and sell it as a way to support their own habit.”
It’s a transient business, he said, with dealers moving often between different houses, apartments, trailers or hotel rooms, and the MCU detectives tracking them.
Lowe said the transition to meth by some heroin users could be due to a number of factors, including people being afraid of overdose as more and more heroin is becoming laced with powerful drugs such as Fentanyl to increase efficiency and boost profits.
“The risk of them dying is much greater. I think that’s one of the factors,” he said. “And some of it is market-driven.”
About a year ago, he said, the cartels started inundating the market with meth and making heroin dealers take a kilo of meth along with the kilo of heroin they were taking.
Lowe predicted that in coming years meth will continue to increase as it has over the past year, and that heroin will continue to be laced frequently with Fentanyl and Carphentynal, both extremely powerful, and dangerous synthetic opioids.
Lowe said that while enforcement remains extremely important, he’s encouraged by law-enforcement agencies’ efforts to go outside their traditional roles to help create outreach programs and help users into treatment and recovery while emphasizing education and prevention.
“I’m never going to arrest enough people to make a difference, and I’m at the point where I’m not sure we can treat enough people,” Lowe said. “If we’re going to make a difference in this, we almost have to look at this as a generational thing and put more effort in prevention and education, starting with very young kids and following them all the way through college.”
The earlier the onset of drug use in children, he said, the more it impacts their brains and the more likely they are to experience addiction issues later.
Athens County Sheriff Rodney Smith confirmed Tuesday that his office has seen rising meth use and more of the drug being trafficked into the area.
“Everything’s evolving. It goes in trends,” he said. “We’re looking for the dealers, and what we’re seeing is that the same dealers who were selling heroin are now selling meth and cocaine.”
Smith said it’s hard to predict where the cycles in drug use will lead or to explain why these cycles occur.
“I can only speculate, but we’ve taken down some pretty substantial (heroin and prescription painkiller) suppliers with our Criminal Interdiction Unit and Major Crimes team, and I think we put pressure on the dealers,” he said.
Long-term, Smith said, his office will continue to target dealers while promoting prevention and addiction treatment.
“I can tell you this, we’ll never be done. We will keep our ears back. We will continue to go after the dealers aggressively, all the time,” he said.
“It’s a community problem. If we can help anybody with addiction, it helps our quality of life; it helps our communities out,” he said, reaffirming his office’s commitment to what’s called community policing.
Smith said deputies will approach addicts and let them know that they can get help before their behavior leads them into the criminal justice system.
“(We want) the citizens to know it’s not us against them. We’re all in this together. We’re trying to make our community safer for everyone,” he said. “The more we can get our community members to believe in that concept and reach out for help when they need it, the more we can help them.”
Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn’s office also played a role in some of the bigger busts that have squashed supply lines for heroin and prescription opioids, and also has instituted a Vivitrol program that treats opioid addiction. Meth presents its own challenges, though.
“It’s easier to make. It’s cheaper. And part of the demand for opiates has gone down, and supply has gone down,” he said. “When you have a reduction in demand and a reduction in suppliers, people turn to other drugs to try to meet the need.”
One significant difference between meth and heroin, Blackburn confirmed, is that if a person is caught making meth, he or she gets charged with manufacturing, which carries a higher-degree of felony charge and mandatory prison time compared to simple possession.
Also, he said, Vivitrol treats opiate addiction by blocking the receptors in the brain that derive pleasure from the drug. There is no similar treatment for meth and cocaine or other stimulants.
However, Blackburn said his office is getting ready to launch a cognitive behavioral therapy program for meth and cocaine addicts to develop a treatment plan for those people as well.
Like Lowe and Smith, Blackburn emphasized the importance of addressing addiction and treatment, education and prevention, as well as larger community issues that lead to drug abuse, and stem from it.
“A lack of hope, a lack of treating mental diseases is what leads to the overwhelming drug addiction, and the overwhelming drug addiction leads to 90 percent of our crime,” he said. “And 90 percent of our crime is where 50 percent of our money goes from tax dollars, to pay prosecutors and law enforcement and for incarceration.”
Blackburn stressed the importance of stakeholders coming together and working together to address these issues as a community.