Local Overdoses Raise Concerns

The Oberlin Police Department responded to 13 reported heroin overdose incidents within Oberlin city limits between January 1 and August 13 of this year, one of which resulted in a death. These incidents are part of a larger pattern of fatal drug-related incidents that claim the lives of hundreds of Lorain County residents each year.

According to County Health Ratings, a database of comparable county statistics, Lorain County has a slightly higher drug overdose mortality rate than the state of Ohio at large. Data recorded between 2013 and 2017 reveal that 39 people per 100,000 die due to drug overdoses in Lorain County, compared to 37 in the rest of Ohio. Although the drug overdose death metric includes overdoses from all kinds of drugs, not just opioids, the Lorain County Coroner’s Office stated that 84 percent of 2017 overdose deaths in Lorain County were opioid-related.

While preliminary reports from the Ohio Department of Health state that the number of drug-related fatalities in 2019 has decreased for the first time in over ten years, Ohioans of all ages and backgrounds remain at risk for opioid addiction. According to Pradip Muhuri, a statistician at the Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research, approximately 80 percent of total heroin users in 2013 began with prescription opioids, and then switched to cheaper alternatives when they found themselves unable to stop using the drug.

“I think we’ve begun to see to see an increase in heroin [use] because of the price,” OPD Lieutenant Mike McCloskey said. “The state cracked down on the availability of prescription drugs; heroin has filled that void. It became easier to buy heroin on the streets than pay for the prescription.”

Institutional and public responses to the continuing opioid crisis in Lorain County may be responsible for this year’s apparent decline in overdose-related deaths.

On Wednesday, United States Senator Sherrod Brown announced that the Ohio Department of Health would receive an additional installment of State Opioid Response grants, totalling more than $55 million, to combat the opioid crisis. 

Additionally, Lorain County Public Health provides educational resources and Naloxone rescue kits for free. Naloxone, also known as Narcan, reduces the incidence of opioid-related deaths by reversing the effects of the overdose. According to the OPD’s Facebook page, the 12 survivors of the reported heroin overdoses in Oberlin were administered Narcan by emergency medical responders or police officers. OPD officers use a nasal application of naloxone rather than administering it intravenously, though other kits require an injection of the life-saving drug directly into the muscle of the overdoser via a syringe.

“[Narcan kits were] distributed to police departments in Lorain County in 2012 as part of a pilot project: project DAWN (Deaths Avoided with Naloxone),” McCloskey said. “It’s been an effective tool simply because we’re often the first people on-scene, even before an ambulance gets there.”

Others argue that preventative or harm reduction strategies are more effective for solving the opioid crisis in the long run, rather than relying on life-saving drugs in an emergency situation. The Harm Reduction Coalition focuses on reducing the negative consequences of illicit drug use through resources such as safe injection sites and seeks to respect the human rights of drug addicts or users.

“The purpose of harm reduction — or, as the harm reduction community is now often referring to it, ‘risk reduction’ — is to acknowledge that an action will be taking place regardless of societal shaming and legal roadblocks, and take steps to reduce as much of the risks affiliated with that action as possible,” College senior Rachel Clark, who has led an ExCo focusing, in part, on safer drug policies, wrote in an email to the Review. “In the case of something like heroin, it is essential that this community — and all others — recognize that it not only exists, but is being actively ingested (often in secret) by our friends, family, and neighbors.”

While the vast majority of drug-related deaths in Ohio are due to opioid abuse, impaired driving also causes a high quantity of fatalities and incidents throughout Lorain County and Ohio. According to the Ohio State Highway Patrol, the number of Operating-Vehicle-while-Intoxicated traffic accidents surpassed 13,000 in 2018, resulting in 402 deaths and nearly 8,000 injuries. There have been more than 450 OVI-related incidents thus far in 2019.

Law enforcement authorities throughout Lorain County have taken steps to reduce fatalities and crashes from impaired driving. For example, the Ohio State Highway Patrol placed an OVI checkpoint on Leavitt Road in Lorain — about 10 miles away from Oberlin — from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. last weekend.

“A large part of what we do is education, and that’s a large part of what the checkpoints are,” Staff Lieutenant Craig Cvetan, spokesperson for Ohio State Highway Patrol, said. “They allow us to speak to motorists and raise awareness about the issues that we see with impaired driving.”

According to Cvetan, the location of the OVI checkpoints are chosen using statistical information that indicated where  “impaired driving problems” tend to occur. At these checkpoints, motorists are handed an informational sheet that states the purpose of the checkpoints as “an effort to make motorists more conscious of the impaired driver problem in Ohio and help bring about a reduction in the number of alcohol and/or drug-related crashes.”

The OPD, as well as the College, are actively involved in preventing additional OVI-related incidents. According to a 2018 OPD report report, Officers Shoemaker and Kuduzovic attended an Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement class.

Additionally, Rideline is an Oberlin-run program that provides transportation around campus. Rideline is perhaps best known around campus as a safer alternative to impaired driving. Its updated schedule — this academic year, it will only be in service between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m. — doesn’t actively refute this sentiment. Rideline’s FAQ section on its website also warns students to not bring open containers on the shuttle, as Ohio state law dictates that it is illegal for passengers and drivers to possess open containers while in a vehicle.

“Rideline was started in 1999 to provide students the service to get around campus in a safer manner,”  Assistant Director of Campus Safety Clifton Barnes said. “Students who have been imbibing too much don’t have to feel obligated to drive or walk home.”

Individuals at risk for drug abuse or overdose can call the Oberlin Police Department at (440) 774-1061 or 911, or alternatively, Lorain County Public Health at (440) 322-6367.