Prescription pill dealers profit on suffering of others

While both law enforcement and elected officials say they cannot merely arrest their way out of the problem, they say the opioid epidemic sweeping across the community is largely caused by drug dealers profiting on the suffering of others.

The Ottawa County Drug Task Force is dedicated to doing as much as possible to curb it.

Joel Barton, an Ottawa County Sheriff’s detective assigned full-time to the drug task force, has served as a police officer for over 20 years.

Barton said he loves his job, but some of the people he encounters in the line of work make it a tough job as well.

It is not so much the addicts, he said, as it is those spreading and exacerbating the addiction by accumulating and redistributing prescription opioid pain medications on the streets.

“Just because you’re an addict does not necessarily make you a horrible, bad person,” Barton said.

“The common question is, how does somebody become a heroin addict? How does someone go from being the 18-year-old girl or boy coming out of Port Clinton High School to being a person that ends up shooting heroin?”

A local example

A recent case of a dealer in Port Clinton provided an illustration of how it happens, Barton said.

“It explains it perfectly to me, from everything that I see each and every day,” he said.

Barton said this person received enough prescriptions drugs from a doctor in a single year to profit as a drug dealer.

Once a month, this person is prescribed 120 tablets of oxycodone, 30mg each. A couple weeks later, he is prescribed another 60 tablets of oxymorphone, 40mg each.

Both are potent opioid pain medications that can cost as an average of around $35 per pill on the street, or $1 per milligram, Barton said. Accumulating these prescriptions twice a month for a year garnered this dealer 2,340 pills with a total street value of over $81,000.

Selling the pills made the person far more money than they would have otherwise earned at a regular job. Meanwhile, year after year the opioids are being dealt to countless users throughout the area.

But Barton explained that when the pill dealers are caught, convicted and taken off the streets, their considerably large customer base for these addictive opioids suddenly turn to other sources.

Roughly half will find other dealers with pills, he said, while the other half will escalate to heroin.

“That’s how heroin starts,” he said.

Ottawa County Prosecutor James VanEerten, who is in his first term since being elected to the office in November, also said that the local justice system cannot merely incarcerate its way out of the problem.

VanEerten described that situation as a “revolving door,” where offenders would go to jail, get clean, serve their sentence and then start using again as soon as they were released.

As the former Ottawa County Common Pleas Court administrator, VanEerten helped launch along with Judge Bruce Winters key programs to offer practical alternatives to incarceration: two specialized court dockets for those suffering from drug addiction, mental illness, or both.

They are commonly referred to as “Drug Court” and “Mental Health Court.”

Both offer individualized and rigorous rehabilitation treatment options for local offenders who qualify and show a willingness to work hard while remaining under close supervision of the court.

Winters meets with every person in the drug court program weekly for an hour. He also meets with their probation officers, addiction counselors and others involved.

'Quite an eye opener'

“It’s been quite an eye opener for me,” Winters said. “Absolutely the hardest part of my week is drug court day. It is absolutely the best part of my week as well because you get to see growth and change in people.”

Ottawa County honored its first drug court graduate in March 2016, 2½ years after the program began.

While VanEerten, as prosecutor, is no longer directly involved with the specialized court docket programs, there are other opportunities to offer drug-addicted defendants treatment before they are convicted, or in some cases, before they are even charged.

Options such as diversion programming and intervention in lieu of conviction can both include drug rehab requirements.

“Our primary purpose is to help,” VanEerten said. “I want the families and loved ones of addicts to know that we are here to help and oftentimes we can point you in the right direction.”

But those directly responsible for bringing these deadly drugs into the community, “profiting off of the destruction of others,” he said, will be taken off the streets and prosecuted harshly.

“It’s unfortunate, but it’s a reality that until we can limit the flow of drugs into our community, we’re always going to have some drug problem,” VanEerten said.

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