By RONALD R. SMITH
Former assistant prosecutor
Practicing attorney in Bellevue
ABC's Nightline on Sept. 29 presented a program that put our communities in the national spotlight but the publicity was anything but favorable. The program was on heroin addiction in rural America, primarily in Huron County. The Bellevue community where I live and work is in Huron County as well as Erie, Sandusky and Seneca counties.
The program followed the life of a Richland County heroin addict named Merry who was five months pregnant. Merry graphically demonstrated how she injected heroin into her body and told her listening audience that she had no life as she was hopelessly addicted to heroin. The ABC Nightline program personally talked to Merry's boyfriend who was also a drug addict and he confessed that he knew at least 17 people in the area who have died from overdoses of heroin and other illicit drugs.
Also interviewed were law enforcement officers who all but admitted that the trafficking of heroin and other illicit drugs have reached an epidemic proportion in the four-county area around Bellevue.
Another life has been claimed by a drug overdose. While this program was being aired Monday night, Sept. 29, I knew of a young mother of three, who was fighting for her life in the hospital as a result of an overdose of illicit drugs which more than likely were acquired from the drug dealers in the Huron County area. The next day, her family made the heart wrenching decision to disconnect the life support system and she died within a short time. She was another victim of the drug addiction that plagues our four-county area. I knew her for a long time and tried to help her, as did her loving husband and family, get off the heroin and illegal drugs but unfortunately the drug dealers had the upper hand. Once you are hooked on drugs, the dealers have a ready and desperate customer base for their evil trade. I know first hand about drug trafficking in the four-county area because, as a retired assistant Erie County prosecutor, I tried many cases that resulted in numerous convictions during my long career. The drug dealers have no boundaries and that is why it is important to have cooperative, coordinated effort by the law enforcement agencies in the four counties to enforce the drug laws and prosecute vigorously the drug dealers by obtaining convictions and giving them heavy prison sentences. Recently the Seneca County prosecutor, along with METRICH drug agents, were successful in prosecuting cases under Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statutes which resulted in convictions of all 17 defendants and all received penitentiary time.
Erie County had similar success while the Erie County Drug Task Force was active, but the task force has since been disbanded due to lack of funding.
Huron and Sandusky counties prosecute drug cases based upon the drug trafficking statutes but they never use RICO statutes to obtain the more severe penalties of mandatory time when the drug dealers are convicted. As a result, minimum sentences are imposed and the drug dealers are back on the street plying their trade in a very short period of time.
The experts say if the demand of illicit drugs was not here, we would not have such a drug problem in our communities and in the United States. Unless one experiences drug addiction, it is difficult to imagine how hard it is to get the "monkey off your back." Some addicts can do this on their own but many cannot. Some courts have instituted "Drug Courts" which gives the convicted drug felon intensive probation with a jail sentence hanging over their head if they do not comply with the rules and keep clean. Erie County Common Pleas Court has such a program called "Benchmark" and reports that the majority of the defendants do succeed in getting off the drugs.
In my experience as a prosecuting attorney, it takes a combination of cooperation among all law enforcement agencies, aggressive prosecution and heavy penitentiary time that will get the defendant's attention that our communities will not tolerate illegal drug activity. Our society should also take the responsibility to help an addict beat his or her drug habit with professional inpatient treatment. No such facility exists in the four-county area but there is definitely a need for it.
Unfortunately the former Bellevue Hospital on Northwest Street could have been such a facility but no one came forward before it was torn down. Now the former Tiffin Mercy Hospital is vacant as a new hospital has been built in Tiffin. Maybe someone could mobilize as effort to look into instituting an inpatient treatment facility for the drug addicts so that these people could be assisted in their goal to get clean from the scourge of illicit drugs.
It is too late for the young Bellevue mother, but there are many more like her in our community that need help. Soon after Nightline aired, the program about the drug addiction problem in Huron County, Oprah Winfrey followed through and offered Merry help to rid herself of the drug addiction through inpatient treatment. Maybe Oprah Winfrey could be asked to help fund an inpatient facility somewhere in the four-county area so many others could be treated close to home near their families and get the "monkey off their back".