The Road to Recovery
According to data from a 2014 survey by the Ohio Department of Health, heroin has caused approximately 1,200 deaths due to overdose that year, which is a 20% increase from the previous year. Synthetic opiates such as fentanyl and carfentanyl have been added to doses of heroin to increase the drug’s potency, and these laced substances have made their way into Southern Ohio.
The opiate epidemic in Ohio has been becoming more widespread as drug traffickers find more ways to make the drugs more attainable and more addictive. But many organizations in the region are finding different ways to combat the issue and help those in need. The Hamilton County Heroin Task Force, led by Lt. Tom Fallon in Cincinnati, has been trying to find more ways to stop drug traffickers and dealers alongside implementing more training to help victims of opiate overdose faster and more efficiently. On another side of the story, the Rural Women's Recovery Program in Athens, Ohio focuses on a three-month live-in program to help users break their addiction. The program is gender-specific, which helps in making the treatment more fitted to the needs of the women participating in the program.
In recent years, opiate related deaths have become more prevalent than auto-related deaths in Ohio and these organizations are trying to find an end to this ever-spreading epidemic.
Major Crimes Task Force- Athens County
The Athens County Police Department is part of a task force consisting of Fairfield, Hocking, and Athens counties that works together to investigate larger crimes- such as drug trafficking and dealing from Columbus to the Ohio River, primarily along U.S. 33. Sheriff Rodney Smith leads the Athens County Police Department and he said that joining the Task Force has increased the county's manpower four-fold. But the county's efforts to minimize the opiate epidemic make up both long-term and short-term investigations. The Task Force deals with longer term issues, such as finding informants and tracking habits of certain dealers to be able to find more information about the roots of the epidemic, along with finding more information about "higher-up" dealers.
Athens County individually deals with shorter-term investigations with Crime Interdiction teams in the region. These teams are in city police departments that work with smaller crimes, such as theft, traffic stops, civilian complaints, etc. that can often end up with finding information or arresting drug dealers. For example, an officer can make a traffic stop because the driver was speeding through a town and they could find that the driver has a warrant out for their arrest or find drug paraphernalia in their vehicle. According to Smith, these small crimes that end in larger investigations help "connect the dots" in finding drug dealers and drug rings in certain areas.
The Athens K9 Unit is part of the city's crime interdiction team that trains canines to find illegal substances in the area. The newest addition to the unit, Bora, a 1-year-old German shepherd, has been training this past year to help the department's efforts in minimizing the opiate epidemic. Smith said that Bora, "is the friendliest dog, you can play with her all day and pet her but she'll get tough once she hears the command. She's one of the smartest dogs we have and she's rarely ever wrong during tests." The positive part of using K9 officers, according to Smith, is that what the dogs find can be testified in court.
As the long-term investigators are able to find more information about the epidemic, law enforcement and first responders are finding more ways to both catch dealers and help victims and users. Each officer in Athens County carries two doses of narcam nasal spray in their cruisers to help victims of opiate overdoses as soon as possible. According to Smith, opiates trigger brain receptors which make a user go to sleep or eventually stop breathing and narcam is able to safely reverse these receptors. The implementation of narcam in law enforcement training has been able to save many lives during the spike in opiate-related injuries in the past decade.
Unintentional Drug Overdose Deaths of Ohio Residents (2010-2015)
Rural Women's Recovery Program (RWRP)
The Rural Women's Recovery Program in Athens, Ohio is a three-month long program that currently houses 16 women at the facility and offers around the clock treatment to help stop the effects of their addictions. According to Cathy Chelak, the program director, many of the women come to the center after years of use that often started from alcohol or prescription drugs that later escalated into an opiate dependancy. In past years, the facility dealt with many levels of drug addictions but Cathy said that since 2010, every woman that has come to the program has been addicted to opiates.
The program has a similar 12-step program within the three-month recovery window that was adapted from the Alcoholics Anonymous peer-run treatment. But some of the steps did not work specifically for the needs of women, especially dealing with a larger drug addiction. For example, one of the steps included "admitting you are powerless", which did not often sit well with women who were trying to find a sense of "power" in themselves during their recovery, which has made the gender-specific programs more productive for the women, according to Chelak.
Often, the addictions are cyclic in the victim's lives and many times multi-generational. Chelak said that many times the women who are participating in the recover program had parents and relatives that use and that often, the children of the women were ending up in the children's recovery house, Basset House, that is on the same property as RWRP. The RWRP has been working on implementing more classes and outside experiences to empower the women living on the property to be able to seek a better life once they leave the center and to help stop the opiate addiction cycle in the region, starting with the women.
The Women of the RWRP
16 women from different regions of Ohio, different backgrounds, and different "drugs of choice", as they are commonly referred, gather each day at 9:30 for their first class together. The couches are arranged in a "U" shape around a narrow wood-paneled room and the discussion begins with, "Hi I'm April, and I am an addict.".... "Hello April". Most of the women are crocheting blankets and hats as they speak or listen to others, one of their learned coping mechanisms. Though many of the words the women speak are heavy and emotional, the room still keeps a calm atmosphere.
The women spend most of their day together in a very regimented schedule, meant to get them used to having a routine in the day that does not involve using. "I used to wake up in the morning and just try to get high, that's all I thought about, instead of having to think of what I was going to do that day or how I was going to solve a problem," said Shoshanna. The women live together in college-dorm style rooms and Katie said that being able to talk to other people who have been in the same place as you or even worse really provides a stronger support than just talking to a counselor who has never actually experienced similar feelings.
Much of the 12-step program focuses on slowly getting the women to form healthy habits that they can use once they are able to leave the program after they finish their 3-months. On the weekends, the women are able to go on walks, play volleyball and other sports, and for those who have children, the kids are able to stay with their mothers. Cathy Chelak said that after a woman becomes more stable in their recovery, they are able to get 24 hour or weekend passes to leave the facility to see their families to allow them to experience life outside the program in small doses as they recover.
Not all of the women have been addicted to opiates, but the majority of the group used them as their drug of choice before entering the program. During one group discussion, the women talked about their addictions, what made them realize they needed to stop, and how they were able to come to RWRP. Many of them were court ordered in their counties and felt thankful, "this place gives us hope," said Maggie, "it's kind of sad but I feel lucky that I was arrested or something bad could've happened to me."
*The Women's last names are not included in this article to protect their anonymity during their recovery.