|Community leaders addressed the heroin issue at a town hall meeting Thursday night.|
by PAT LaFLEUR
City Reporter, Fort Thomas Matters
The first step toward recovery from addiction involves admitting that the situation has become unmanageable, and acknowledging that there is a problem.
A recent series of town hall meetings discussing the dramatic rise in heroin traffic across Northern Kentucky suggests the region is taking that first step toward recovery.
Last Thursday, the discussion came to Fort Thomas.
Community leaders and local government and law enforcement officials met for a standing-room-only town hall meeting at First Christian Church on Alexandria Pike in Fort Thomas. The purpose of the meeting was to educate and discuss with the public the recent increase in heroin traffic in Northern Kentucky.
Speakers at the meeting, which was organized by NKY Hates Heroin, included Campbell County Judge Executive Steve Pendery, NKY People Advocating Recovery (PAR) Chair Jason Merrick, NKY Drug Strike Force coordinator Darren Smith, FTPD Officer Chris Goshorn, FTPD Lt. Rich Whitford, FTFD EMS Chris Wulfeck, Campbell County Coroner Dr. Mark Schweitzer, pharmacist Jim Liebetrau, St. Elizabeth - Ft. Thomas Nurse Manager Ashel Kruetzkamp, family practitioner Dr. Mina Kalfas, and recovery advocate Charlotte Wethington, along with two NKY residents currently living in long-term recovery.
FTPD Chief Mike Daly and Campbell County Commonwealth Attorney Michelle Snodgrass were also in attendance. Update: Sheriff Kidwell and candidate, Mike Jansen were also in attendance.
Police: "The Worst We've Ever Seen It"
Judge Executive Steve Pendery framed the evening's discussion by introducing the audience to the scale of the heroin problem sweeping Northern Kentucky. He described how recent overcrowding in Northern Kentucky jails is in large part due to drug trafficking, and that 68-percent of Northern Kentuckians behind bars are there for drug/alcohol related offenses.
Dr. Mark Schweitzer, Campbell County Coroner, added more sobering statistics to the discussion, highlighting how this issue has reached epidemic proportions in the region. Annual heroin-related deaths in Campbell County, for instance, have skyrocketed over the last three years. According to Schweitzer, 1998-2010 saw a total of five heroin-related deaths. That figure almost doubled in 2011 alone, with nine. 2012 saw 28 heroin-related deaths, and there have been 16 so far this year.
All law enforcement officers present agreed that this is the worst they've ever seen the heroin problem in Northern Kentucky.
As for the source of NKY's heroin traffic, Darren Smith of the NKY Drug Strike Force explained that the drug first entered the region from the north, in Cincinnati, when Kentucky softened its penalties for drug trafficking to a level less severe than Ohio. Now, it's continuing to move farther south into Kentucky, he said. Smith has seven field agents responsible for drug enforcement across all three Northern Kentucky counties.
A Battle on All Fronts
As discussion began rolling, it became clear among all the panelists that there is no magic bullet that will kill NKY's heroin problem. Instead, panelists agreed, it will take the combined efforts of the community at large.
Several speakers attributed the rise in addiction and heroin-related deaths to a gap between law enforcement and treatment.
"We put people in jail, but we don't treat them, and they don't come out [of jail] better people. That needs to change," Pendery said.
Charlotte Wethington, recovery advocate with the regional treatment facility Transitions and mother of a heroin overdose victim, agreed saying, "Addiction is a disease, not a crime. Incarceration is not treatment."
Dr. Mina Kalfas locates the root of the problem in Northern Kentucky's lack of adequate treatment and detoxification facilities. A recent Cincinnati.com report suggests that Kalfas is right: Northern Kentucky's state and federal funding for substance abuse comes in approximately $5 less per capita than Kentucky's state-wide average, while the region accounts for nearly two out of every three heroin arrests and prosecutions, according to available data.
For FTPD Officer Chris Goshorn, these disparities mean that hope lies in the cross-disciplinary approach for which Northern Kentucky has already begun receiving recognition.
"We need to bring (our efforts) together, for enforcement, education, and recovery," he said.
On a legislative front, Jason Merrick, Chair of NKY PAR, described his organization's efforts to change policy surrounding narcotic drug administration and treatment for addiction. NKY PAR was instrumental in the passage of Casey's Law in Kentucky, which allows parents, relatives, or friends to petition the court for treatment on behalf of a person who is substance abuse impaired.
NKY PAR is also lobbying to have drug safety kits, including the opioid antagonist naloxone, prescribed with narcotic drug prescriptions. Naloxone, sometimes referred to as Narcan, rapidly reverses the effects of an overdose and is now administered to overdose victims by emergency responders on the scene.
"Naloxone is a wonder drug in the fight against heroin overdoses," said pharmacist Jim Liebetrau. "It can reverse an overdose in 2-5 minutes, from being unconscious to standing and talking."
"Our mission overall is to prevent more people from dying," Merrick said.
Acknowledging a "Dirty Little Secret"
FTFD EMS Chris Wulfeck echoed that people's lives hang in the balance, urging residents not to let the stigma of addiction or any possible drug-charges get in the way of seeking assistance.
"If you suspect an overdose, call 911 right away. Legal ramifications are trumped by the health of the victim," he said.
Regardless of their discipline, all the panelists shared the opinion of Ashel Kreutzkamp, St. Elizabeth-Ft. Thomas's nurse manager, when she said, "We have a lot of work to do."
For some of the panelists, that means reexamining what sort of treatment accompanies jail time served for a drug offense. For others, it means organizing events like Thursday's town hall meeting.
For Wethington and PAR, it means lobbying the legislature.
"We (PAR) have a legislative agenda for 2014," Wethington said, "And it's going to take bus loads of people going to Frankfort to make a change."
In the mean time, panelists all agreed the name of the game is raising awareness and acknowledging the problem.
"Heroin used to be a dirty little secret in Northern Kentucky," said FTPD Lt. Rich Whitford. "Now, everyone has been touched by this epidemic."