Carl Rider tilted forward in his chair, looked down and shook his head at a case full of illegal drugs seized all across Ottawa County.
It’s a sight that’s unfortunately all too familiar to him and his colleagues.
"Every year, the governor's office wants us to send drug stats and overdose figures," Rider said. "Those numbers have been growing in our county, and I can tell you this year will see a tenfold increase."
Through May, the Ottawa County Drug Task Force has already come across as much heroin as they did two years ago.
Even more disturbing: Officials expect 2016 to surpass the record number of heroin seizures, 23 in 2011, by year’s end.
“Heroin is killing people,” Rider said. “It’s out of control.”
There have been eight reported opioid-related deaths in Ottawa County since October 2015.
Rider is one of several people working on the drug task force. It’s a coalition of Ottawa County law enforcement officers who fight the drug epidemic with undercover tactics and education.
Rider, along with agents Joel Barton, Donald St. Clair and prosecutor Mark Mulligan, who supervises the effort, recently met with the Register to discuss the problems they witness firsthand. Ottawa County Sheriff Steve Levorchick, who’s office can work alongside the task force, also joined the conversation.
A growing epidemic
During the two-hour sit-down interview, Levorchick kept emphasizing a point he wants community members to understand.
Addicts aren’t just in front of judges or behind jail cells — they’re behind cars, counters and found in almost all walks of life.
“These are our kids, neighbors or the people we go to church with,” Levorchick said. “Becoming an addict could happen to anyone.”
"I've never seen anything like it," he continued. "I'm old enough to remember the 70s and 80s, and back then when you thought of heroin users you thought of people living in the slums. Today you find it in every walk of life. It's not just junkies anymore."
Barton then explained the unfortunate reality for many people struggling with drugs.
"Some addicts can't even function without dope," Barton said. "An average heroin user shoots up about half of a gram per day. That same addict could easily spend $750 on six grams."
Not only is it an expensive habit — it’s a deadly one, too.
For instance, some addicts have a tolerance for heroin. If they take what they believe is the correct dose, and that heroin has been mixed with fentanyl or other toxic substances, they could overdose and die. Fentanyl is a powerful opioid that looks almost exactly like heroin but is far more powerful. It's oftentimes mixed in with heroin and sold to unsuspecting addicts.
So why not arrest every drug user on site?
Because it's possible drug users could help curb those deaths.
Consider this: The task force routinely uses addicts as informants to root out dealers working throughout Ottawa County. They make multiple drug buys to build strong cases against dealers.
Mulligan said he then uses evidence collected by the task force in court. It's much easier for agents to acquire that evidence with help from an informant, Barton said.
How did we get here?
Rider has a theory to help others understand how the drug epidemic spiraled out of control.
"In my opinion, it seemed like doctors were overprescribing opioids," Rider said. "So let's say you have an injury and you're prescribed Vicodin. You could become addicted, if you're not careful, or develop a tolerance and end up needing something stronger."
Law officials started cracking down on doctors years ago, leaving addicts with fewer options.
"Heroin has filled that void left behind by pills," Rider said. "It started with overprescribing, but people still need their fix."
There are, of course, other drugs addicts have turned to, including crack cocaine and alternative opioids.
Heroin is by and large the most deadly.
"There's no denying it: Heroin is more dangerous, and there's no quality control," Barton said. "A lot of the overdoses lead to fatalities."
Whether it’s from overdose deaths, drug-related thefts or other spinoff crimes, heroin is having a devastating effect on every facet of society.
Officials realize they can’t arrest their way out of this problem.
The only cure they want to prescribe: an all-out education effort, letting people know about the consequences of using and abusing drugs.
Agents host drug talks with civic groups and at schools to show locals what the drugs look like. They also highlight the dangers associated with drug abuse.
"You're never going to stop the drugs, but you have to try to control it," Barton said. “We need to go around and educate these kids and let them know there’s no retirement plan in drugs. You either get caught by the cops, the bad guys get you, or the dope gets you.”
The agents credited their dedicated leadership for giving them the tools they need to fight against drugs.
"I'm grateful to work in a county where everyone supports the task force," St. Clair said. "Drugs are still a problem here, but it would have spiraled out of control if we weren't able to do what we do."
Reach reporter Patrick Pfanner at firstname.lastname@example.org