Fewer drug-related deaths have been recorded in Clark County this year, but health officials and law enforcement warn that doesn’t mean fewer people are using drugs.
Narcan and other life-saving measures have played a significant role in reducing deaths, said Wendy Doolittle, Chief Executive Director of McKinley Hall, a drug rehabilitation center in Springfield.
But the drug problem persists, she said.
“I don’t think drug use is going down at all,” Doolittle said.
Clark County Prosecutor Andy Wilson said law enforcement is still seeing a lot of drugs on the street and his office is still prosecuting drug-related offenses at a similar rate to 2017.
“We clearly still have a drug problem,” Wilson said.
There have been 23 unintentional drug deaths so far in 2018, according to the most recent Clark County Coroner Office statistics. In 2017, more than 100 unintentional drug deaths were reviewed by the Clark County Drug Death Review Committee, according to Clark County Combined Health District Epidemiologist Anna Jean Petroff.
Drug use has become commonplace, Doolittle said, but the reality is the risk and dangers still exists.
Clark County statistics show opioids haven’t been as deadly in 2018 as in previous years.
One of the deadliest years on record for drug-deaths was 2017, Petroff said.
“There were 104 drug-related deaths reviewed by the Clark County Drug Death Review Committee in 2017, a 25 percent increase from 83 in 2016. Seventy cases were reviewed in 2015,” she said.
Men were more likely to die by drug overdoses than women in 2017, the statistics show.
“The most common age group among individuals who died of a drug overdose in 2017 was 35-44 years, accounting for 27 percent of all overdose deaths,” she said. “The next most common age group was 45-54 years, at 24 percent.”
Project DAWN — short for Deaths Avoided With Naloxone — distributes Narcan kits and trains people how to use them to help save lives. The program is run by McKinley Hall.
Doolittle said she believes that Narcan kits given out by programs like Project Dawn are saving lives in 2018.
Narcan is a drug used to reverse the effects of a drug overdose.
“Some of it is Narcan,” she said. “Those kits are available and we are getting them out into the community. You’ve got all of these different entities now providing Narcan and having access to it and being able to administer Narcan. That’s why we have seen the death rates go down.”
However, it’s not stopping people from using, she said.
“It’s prevention,” Doolittle said. “What we know is that we are not going to resolve this drug problem overnight, but what you want to do is mitigate the harmful effects as much as possible.”
Project DAWN coordinator Kelly Binegar was recently at the Springfield Soup Kitchen to provide training on how to use Narcan.
The kits are an important part of the fight against opioids, she said.
“In 2018, we’ve had less suspected fatal overdoses but we think that’s more due to the kits being out in the community and 2017 was just terrible,” she said. “The statistics in 2017 were terrible. And they went up from 2013 to 2017 dramatically.”
Watching a person suffering a drug-induced overdose is a frightening experience and isn’t something Springfield Soup Kitchen operator Fred Stegner wants to normalize.
“We had three overdoses in here last year and they’re not fun,” he said. “The local community just looks at it as a common day occurrence but they are serious.”
Stegner sees the training as another way of helping people.
“Some people say they are taking advantage but it’s not that way. If one life is saved, it’s worth it,” Stegner said.
Drug users are becoming more aware of the dangers of fentanyl and many have begun switching from heroin to drugs like methamphetamine and crack-cocaine, Doolittle said.
“What we have heard patients say is that they feel like it’s safer,” Doolittle said. “They don’t want to die. The problem is that it’s not really safer because a lot of times there is fentanyl in that as well. Their logic behind that doesn’t make a lot of sense but I appreciate the fact that they are trying to be safer in their use practices.”
She said those addicted to drugs need to seek professional guidance to help conquer their addiction. The way the city is going to defeat addiction is by diminishing the demand and not necessarily the supply.
Wilson said Clark County has been able to avoid a methamphetamine crisis like those in other parts of the country. However, his office has seen more of it recently.
“We are seeing a resurgence of meth,” Wilson said. ” We have been very fortunate for the past 10 years to escape the meth issues other jurisdictions have, but we are beginning to see more of it.”
Recently, the prosecutor’s office worked with federal prosecutors to convict a Springfield man trafficking drugs from Mexico, Wilson said.
Wilson too feels like drug users see methamphetamine as a safer option than heroin, but both are illegal and his office is prepared to prosecute offenders, he said.
The majority of cases the Clark County Prosecutor’s Office handles have some sort of drug connection, Wilson said.
“Our violent crime a lot of times are drug dealers or have a drug link,” Wilson said. “Shooting each other up or ripping each off.”
Non-violent crimes like breaking into a house, stealing and shoplifting are often drug-related, Wilson said.
When law enforcement busts drug dealers, Wilson said, stolen property is recovered.
“It is not unusual for a unit to go into a house and it look like a thrift store,” Wilson said. “There is an assortment of items including things like meat, laundry detergent anything that drug users could get their hands on.”
Wilson said community policing statistics show that emergency overdose runs are down this year compared to a year ago.
As of July 25, city police had responded to 201 overdose calls and the county had responded to about 60 since July 30, Wilson said. Last year, the city and county responded to about 1,000 calls overall.
While the number of deaths and overdose runs are down, Wilson said his office is seeing a steady stream of drug-related crime.
“We’re running about normal about now. Even though the drug deaths have dropped, our caseload is staying about the same.”
Shelley Case is a grandmother from Springfield who decided to take part in Project DAWN’s Narcan training because she knows people who are addicted.
“I just wanted to know for sure what to do if I have to help,” Case said. “I want to be able to help someone else.”
She knows someone who overdosed five times in a short period of time , she said and worried about being put in a life or death situation.
“I wanted to make sure because of our situation it’s unreal,” she said. “There are so many people overdosing. This is a good thing because we could help somebody. I like helping people so I am glad I came.”
By the Numbers
23: unintentional drug deaths from Jan. 1 to July 1 in Clark County in 2018
104: unintentional drug deaths in Clark County in 2017
83: unintentional drug deaths in Clark County in 2016
70: unintentional drug deaths in Clark County in 2015
The Springfield News-Sun has written extensively about opioid and drug problems in Clark County in the past five years, including stories about multiple overdoses in one weekend and efforts to expand treatment options. The News-Sun will continue to take a deep dive into the community’s drug epidemic and what local leaders are doing to solve the problem.