It wasn’t breaking news that heroin and its related drugs were ravaging communities across Ohio, but the revelation that the state led the nation in opioid overdose deaths in 2014 put the problem into perspective. Ohio is the seventh largest state, but had more overdose deaths in 2014 than California, the largest state and the one that typically leads the nation in this category. California has more than triple the population of Ohio. The Buckeye State accounted for 7.4 percent of all opioid overdose deaths in the United States that year.

Lake County law enforcement agencies said opioid-related crimes were among the most prevalent in 2016. “That’s probably had the most impact on any town or city,” Lake County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Frank Leonbruno said.

Neighboring Cuyahoga County has surpassed the 500 mark for heroin/fentanyl overdose deaths in 2016, more than doubling its 2015 total (228). Lake County too has seen its overdose deaths climb in 2016. As of Dec. 6, there have been 64 unintentional overdose deaths, according to the Lake County General Health District. The county’s death rate per 100,000 residents is at 27.9 in 2016. The previous high was 20 in 2014.

The Lake County Crime Lab tests drugs seized by law enforcement agencies in the county. The Crime Lab has seen a similar amount of heroin this year as they did in 2015. There were 488 heroin cases last year and 467 through the end of November this year. What has really increased is the number of cases of other opioids.

There were 113 cases of fentanyl last year and there have been 428 through the end of November this year, according to the Crime Lab. There were 11 cases of fentanyl two years ago and only one in the two years prior to that. Other opioids, such as carfentanil and 3-methyl fentanyl, have appeared in the county for the first time this year.

Lake County was the first in Ohio to see U-47700. The drug originally was created by pharmaceutical company Upjohn in the mid-1970s. The opioid was supposed to be more potent than morphine, but less addictive. The intention was to use it to treat severe pain associated with cancer, surgery or injury and it was tested on animals, but never humans.

The January death of a 29-year-old man in Lake County remained a mystery for several months. “It was frustrating for all concerned,” said Lake County Crime Lab Supervisor of Chemistry & Toxicology Douglas E. Rohde.Rohde found his answer in the March/April issue of “ToxTalk,” a newsletter put together by the Society of Forensic Toxicologists.

That issue detailed two fatal overdoses involving U-47700 in Texas and how the cases were tested. The Lake County Crime Lab used the information to help determine that the 29-year-old also overdosed from U-47700.

Rohde said he’s constantly in contact with other crime labs around the country, but particularly the others in Ohio. The drugs are very regional, he said, and something that one part of the state sees is bound to appear in another.  Sure enough, U-47700 (known by the street names “pink” or “pinky”) found its way to other counties, including Lorain and Summit.

Ohio became the first state to schedule, or classify, the drug and Rohde said that they saw an impact because of that. The Lake County Crime Lab had 23 cases of U-47700 this year, but the number slowed after it was scheduled by Gov. John Kasich. The drug has since been scheduled federally by the Drug Enforcement Agency.

Another example of a drug making its way around the state is carfentanil. The large-animal sedative first appeared in Franklin County before spreading south, notably to Hamilton County and to the north in places like Summit, Cuyahoga and Lake counties. Through November, Lake County has seen seven cases of the drug that is 60 to 100 times more potent than fentanyl. Fentanyl itself is 50 times more potent than heroin. Rohde said the number of carfentanil cases has increased in December.

Related crimes

The rise in overdoses has kept police and fire departments busy. Leonbruno said in the four townships that the Sheriff’s Office patrols (Painesville, Concord, Perry and Leroy) they’ve responded to more than 100 opioid overdoses this year. Some overdose victims have been able to be revived with the opioid overdose-reversal drug naloxone. The Sheriff’s Office does not carry naloxone, but fire departments in the Sheriff’s coverage area like Painesville Township do.

To help fund their addiction, users are stealing valuables from friends and family members, Leonbruno said. These cases often times go unreported. “Sometimes people don’t report it because it’s a son or a daughter, a parent, a brother or a sister,” he said.

Leonbruno said they’ve seen more home break-ins with people stealing jewelry, money and other valuables. This is something that other agencies like Wickliffe police and the Geauga County Sheriff’s Office have said they’ve seen an increase in as well. People are taking the jewelry to pawn shops and more often cash-for-gold places, Leonbruno said.

Retail theft is another related problem. People are stealing items from stores and then returning them for gift cards.  As Euclid Lt. Dave House told the News-Herald earlier this year, the gift cards are then brought to a card-exchange kiosk or a cash-for-gold store and exchanged for cash at about 50 percent to 60 percent of face value.

“Retail stores don’t demand receipts for returns, making them easy victims, but they could scare away customers who have legitimately lost their receipts,” House told The News-Herald. “It puts the retail stores in a tight spot — stop the thefts or lose legitimate customers.”

Mentor, which is home to the largest number of big-box retailers in Lake County, started a retail theft division with the help of a Retail Crime Deterrence Grant.  Retail theft has become increasing popular in the past few years. Willoughby Detective Lt. James Schultz said scrap metal thefts have become “virtually non-existent” with the value of copper dropping and the comparative ease of retail theft.

Another increase

“In terms of serious drugs, it was all heroin,” Wickliffe Lt. Pat Hengst said of the past few years, 2013 and 2014 in particular.  But cocaine made a comeback in 2016. While the staggering number of opiate overdoses dominated the headlines, cocaine quietly had a deadly year in Northeast Ohio too.

A Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s report projects cocaine overdose deaths in the county to nearly double from 115 last year to 225 this year.

In Wickliffe, it’s been crack cocaine. Hengst said they’ve had more crack possession and trafficking arrests this year. That has not coincided with any drop-off in heroin cases, however. “Heroin’s been high and continues to be high,” Hengst said.

‘Battling this enemy effectively’

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy recently released a 400-plus page report called “Facing Addiction in America.”  In the report, Murthy said one of the barriers between addicts and treatment is stigma.  “Addiction is a chronic disease of the brain and it’s one that we have to treat the way we would any other chronic illness: with skill, with compassion and with urgency,” he said.

The Lake County Opiate Task Force was started in 2011 by the Lake County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Metal Health Services (ADAMHS) board. The task force includes the Department of Jobs & Family Services, Juvenile Court, Sheriff’s Office, commissioners, general health district, coroner, Educational Service Center and Mental Health/Drug Court.  “In Lake County, I believe we’re employing smart strategies and that our efforts are helping us battle the enemy effectively,” ADAMHS Board Executive Director Kim Fraser said in a statement.

One of the task force’s priorities is to get more county residents familiar with warning signs of abuse and addiction and how to connect with available resources. They’ve worked with schools, churches, law enforcement and other first responders, courts government and social services agencies. They’ve helped train clergy, first-responders, coaches and parents of student athletes, and pain management clinics. The task force also has provided information for parents of how to be more proactive with their kids.

Another task force initiative is the creation of secure drop-off bins for old, unused or expired medications. The bins are located in seven police departments throughout the county: Eastlake, Mentor, Willoughby, Willoughby Hills, Madison Township, Lakeland and the Lake County Sheriff’s Office in Painesville.

Addiction recovery services can be found through the ADAMHS Board Compass Line, which puts callers in touch with triage specialists who can “sift through issues and connect with the right resources,” Fraser said. The Compass Line can be reached at (440) 350-2000 or (440) 918-2000.

The Lake County General Health Districts provides naloxone to both police departments and Lake County residents. The health district has been able to give police departments naloxone through a program funded through the Ohio Department of Mental Health Services. The 12 departments are Eastlake, Fairport Harbor, Holden Arboretum, Lake Metroparks Rangers, Lakeland Community College, Madison Township, Mentor, Mentor-on-the-Lake, North Perry, Perry Village, Waite Hill and Willowick. As of Dec. 6, 35 lives have been saved through the program according to the Health District.

Through a donation by the United Way of Lake County, the Health District has been able to offer Project DAWN (Deaths Avoided With Naloxone) for the last three years. Project DAWN clinics teach participants how to recognize an overdose, what to do and how to administer naloxone. Those looking to register for Project DAWN are asked to call Dawn Cole at (440) 350-2417.

Published by The News-Herald, Andrew Cass