Recently local law enforcement officials have begun to play witness to an alarming new trend ó† the steady rise of illegal substance abuse.
According to David Smith, the director of the Medway Drug Enforcement Agency, heroin use in Wooster and the surrounding communities has increased by approximately 400 percent in the past two years. In the same time period, there has been anywhere from a 300 to 400 percent increase in the abuse of pharmaceutical drugs, such as OxyContin and Percocet.
The recent increase in drug use is not exclusive to the area, however; it is part of a statewide epidemic that many have attributed, in part, to the growth of Mexican drug cartel operations in Americaís heartland. The cartels, which government officials have cited as one of the greatest threats to national security, have recently begun to push heroin sales in the more rural areas of Ohio and other Midwestern states. The increased statewide presence of the cartels is even notable on a local level; earlier this year, federal authorities arrested members of the notoriously violent Sinaloa Cartel that were using an airport in neighboring Summit County to transport narcotics across the United States.
However, while Smith believes it is likely that many of the illegal narcotics currently found in the local community were originally transported to Ohio by the cartels, he is sure to note that there is little other evidence of a significant cartel presence in the northeastern region of the state, and that the area ìhas seen no big influx of gangs.” He claims that the stunning increase in drug abuse in the community is not attributable to Mexican crime organizations, but rather a culprit that is much more familiar to Ohioans: economic hardship.
As of September, Ohioís unemployment rate had risen to an alarming 9.7 percent; this figure comes close to mirroring the national average, which currently sits at 10.2 percent. According to Smith, many local workers recently laid off from their jobs are now turning to drug dealing as a new source of income, which has led to a rise in drug sales and consumption. While some dealers may have loose gang affiliation, many operate on an individual level and are repeat offenders.
This trend has posed a new problem to an area already hard hit by economic downturn. According to Dep. Richard Bolick of the Wayne County Sheriffís Office, law enforcement officials in Wooster and the rest of Wayne County have adopted a multifaceted approach to combating drug sales and abuse in the area. The police department works closely with Medway, and Bolick emphasizes the importance of communication between the two agencies. There is a two-man task force assigned to monitoring drug-related activity, and the department also has several canines at its disposal. Local authorities routinely set up on known drug houses in an effort to stem the increase of drug sales. Bolick notes, however, that issues can arise due to lack of manpower; the department cannot always work as effectively as it wishes because it does not have the resources to do so.
While the buying and selling of heroin represents a transaction that is exclusive to the street, those suffering from addiction to pharmaceutical drugs can, and often do, resort to deception to get their fix. Many swipe prescription pads from doctorsí offices or print authentic-looking prescription paper from online sources and then proceed to self-medicate. Many addicts regularly rotate pharmacies in order to avoid being caught, which can make it difficult to track signs of abuse. Pharmacy employees, however, do their best to monitor their clientsí prescription requests and are instructed to report suspicious behavior; in addition, many local doctorsí offices now send their patientsí prescriptions to pharmacies electronically in the hopes of preventing prescription fraud.
While local law enforcement officials work hard catch drug offenders and monitor their activity, it is especially difficult to address the addiction problems that drive people to buy drugs in the first place. According to Smith, the heroin currently on the street is both purer and cheaper than it has been previously, making the habit of abuse easier to sustain. Dealers usually target members of low-income groups; many people start out snorting the drug and soon begin to inject it. Those who turn to pharmaceutical drugs usually do so because they perceive it as a safer way to get a high; they can be sure of the ingredients in prescription medication, which is not always the case with street drugs.
To combat the problem posed by addiction, the Wayne County Common Pleas Court set up the Drug Court program last October. The court provides substance abuse treatment, as opposed to probation or prison time, to non-violent felons who suffer from drug addiction. Participants in the program, which is a year in length, are closely monitored by members of the court and take part in a variety of rehabilitation efforts. The court is more lenient towards those who only suffer from addiction and are not dealers themselves.
While the issues Wooster and surrounding communities face with regard to drug abuse are severe in and of themselves, they have, in part, produced another pressing dilemma: the overcrowding of the Wayne County Jail. According to Sheriff Thomas Maurer, the recent passing of Senate Bill II in the Ohio legislature has forced local jails across the state to take on many fifth-degree felons, many of whom were convicted on drug-related charges. The jail, which was constructed in 1977, was originally designed to house 12 inmates; it is currently holding approximately 102 inmates and, on a daily basis, is at the limit of its capacity. The stay of the average inmate is approximately 30 days. Sheriff Maurer described the situation as ìa grave problem” and said that the overcrowding has given rise to budgeting concerns.
Even as authorities work to combat the issues posed by the increase in the sale and consumption of illegal drugs, Smith is concerned that the problem is due to get worse. ìItíll grow because of the economy,” he said. ìItís a way to make money.”