Drug addiction has been ruining lives and destroying families for years in Huron County, but experts say it's getting worse.
Enemy No. 1? Heroin.
Whether it's white powder, Mexican brown or the popular black tar version, drug enforcement officers say heroin is the most addictive drug on the local market and the most troublesome.
Packaged in tiny balloons or stamp collector envelopes with prices of $20 to $40, heroin is bought and sold discretely on streets, back alleys and apartment complexes throughout the county.
Local law enforcement agencies have taken note of what many consider an alarming jump in heroin use. They've responded by escalating drug investigations, drug arrests and efforts to educate the community.
In Norwalk alone, the police department's detective bureau has more than tripled the number of drug investigations it undertakes each year from 48 in 2002 to 150 in 2006. Drug arrests in the city are at a five-year high, with 177 arrests in 2006.
"A lot of people have heard about it," said Norwalk police Det. Dave Pigman. "They don't know it's a big problem until it gets on their back doorstep. It's going on right in people's faces in broad daylight."
How it began
Experts say Huron County’s heroin epidemic took root in 2000-01.
Back then, doctors throughout the state regularly prescribed patients a pill called Oxycontin, a synthetic form of heroin used as a pain killer, according to Mansfield police Chief Phil Messer.
He is the project director for METRICH, a 10-county coalition of drug task forces, including Huron County, that combine resources and work collaboratively in the war against drugs.
“A lot of medical professionals were giving out Oxycontin way too often,” he said. “A lot of people got hooked on them.”
Messer said Oxycontin quickly became one of the most abused drugs in the state and, as a result, doctors tightened up on their prescriptions.
“So what does the abuser do?” he asked. “Now he or she is forced to go back to the street to get heroin.”
Huron County Coroner Jeff Harwood said he first started to see accidental drug overdoses, most from heroin, in 2002.
Harwood was also the Huron County jail physician for several years and noticed another concerning trend that most heroin users get hooked on the drug as young adults.
“We were now seeing 18- to 22-year-old boys and girls using heroin as their first drug,” he said. “It seemed to make it more tragic.”
Messer and Huron County Sheriff Capt. Bob McLaughlin said heroin and other drug supplies arrive in Huron County from a number of larger cities, most notably Columbus.
Dealers — oftentimes addicts who sell to support their habits — drive to Columbus two or three times a day, purchasing drugs they sell at inflated prices in Huron County.
“The people who are addicted to it have to have it,” McLaughlin said. “Heroin addicts start when they get up early. They look for the first person who’s going to give them a balloon to keep them from getting sick.”
NORWALK’S DRUG WAR
“The drug problem in Norwalk is bigger than I want it to be,” Norwalk Mayor Sue Lesch said. “Some people in other communities might look at it and say it’s not a problem, but it’s bigger than it should be for Norwalk, Ohio.”
Drug arrests in the Maple City have increased dramatically in the last few years and Norwalk drug enforcement officers say heroin use in particular is getting worse.
“We’re seeing some of the people we’ve had two or three times through the system,” said Det. Jim Fulton. “They’ve been arrested, come out of jail and we’ve got cases on them again.”
Fulton and Pigman are part of Norwalk Police Department’s three-man drug enforcement crew, which is headed up by Sgt. Todd Temple.
All three officers say drug enforcement is a priority because it affects other crime statistics. The need for addicts to stay high compels them to commit other crimes for money to support their habits, Temple said.
As the former law director for the city of Norwalk, Huron County Common Pleas Judge Jim Conway estimates that more than 50 percent of the county’s current criminal cases are drug related and half of those cases are heroin related.
But walk along Norwalk’s picturesque Main Street and you’d probably never suspect an underlying drug problem.
“We don’t have an open air market where you drive up, honk your horn and somebody will come out and sell you stuff,” Temple said. “Generally they’ll meet and a lot of times they’ll change locations several times during the meeting ’cause they’re all paranoid.”
HEROIN IN A COMMUNITY
Heroin addicts fit no demographic profile. Users come from all backgrounds — young and old, black and white, rich and poor.
“There are affluent people who have problems, too,” McLaughlin said. “Anybody can be involved in dope — lawyers, doctors, cops, that’s the way it is.”
Oftentimes families of addicts, who want to protect their loved ones from jail or withdrawal symptoms, help them continue their destructive lifestyles.
“We’ve known of parents who will drive their kids to buy the heroin,” Temple said.
Officers said it’s heartbreaking to see how heroin ruins lives.
“One fella we busted said he was doing 25 balloons a day,” Fulton said. “You get people dying from overdoses, having limbs amputated from Staph infections, getting infected with Hepatitis C and AIDS.”