CIRCLEVILLE - With heroin use at epidemic proportions throughout the state and the country, local officials and members of the Ohio Attorney General's Heroin Unit met Tuesday to brainstorm ways to attack the problem on a local level.
Jennifer Biddinger, director of drug abuse outreach initiatives for Attorney General Mike DeWine, presented an overview of the problem, statistics and trends to officials in the Maxwell Center on the Ohio Christian University campus, then took the meeting into roundtable sessions for participants to discuss how they could work together locally to combat heroin abuse.
They also discussed possible new initiatives and programs that could be implemented to help the ongoing problems of addiction and relapse.
"I think today was an information gathering session on what we propose that could work," said Jason McGowan, chief probation officer for the Circleville Municipal Court. "A lot of the things we talked about are plans that are already in motion, but we need to get all the players together to brainstorm how to get some of these plans implemented."
McGowan said the discussions focused on areas of law enforcement, treatment, awareness, prevention, legislation, funding and more, and he was glad to see the Attorney General's office taking an interest at the local level.
"It's kind of a reactive process, reacting to the epidemic," McGowan said. "It's unfortunate it's gotten this far, but it's good they're seeing it and taking the steps necessary to reach out to the counties to see what we have, what we're doing and how they can help."
Sheriff Robert Radcliff, who hosted the meeting, said he was gratified to see the broad cross-section of people in attendance at Tuesday's session, which included members of law enforcement, judges, probation officers, county commissioners, school officials and mental health professionals.
"I think we are making a difference, but that doesn't mean we need to let up on the gas," Radcliff said. "Maybe we haven't done as well as we could have, or maybe we can do it better together. That's what this is all about."
Radcliff said one difficulty in fighting the drug war is that the issue changes almost daily. For a while, it was prescription drugs, then cocaine, and now heroin is the big problem.
"It seems wherever we plug a hole, another hole opens up," he said. "But I think we all know that law enforcement alone can't be the answer."
Judge Gary Dumm of the Circleville Municipal Court said he appreciates the Attorney General's willingness to put time, money and personnel into the endeavor.
"I think anything that gets people thinking about what we can do in the community is a good thing, it's a positive thing," Dumm said. "I'd like to be more focused on goals and things I think will work. There are a lot of tools out there, it's just getting them in the right order and using the tools that will work. That's always a moving target, but all in all, I think things like this get folks thinking and on the same page."
Vince Yaniga, director of the Scioto-Paint Valley Mental Health clinic in Circleville, said he believes funding will be a major issue in getting effective programs implemented locally, but the recent expansion of Medicaid has helped more people obtain treatment than ever before.
The problem after treatment, though, is that recovering addicts often reconnect with old friends and fall back into the same old habits, Yaniga said.
"When that happens, the chance of recovery goes way down," he said.
That is why he advocates things like residential housing for people coming out of rehab to help cut down those sad statistics, but again, he said, it boils down to funding.
"As I told someone inside, it sounds like the solution is more money," he said.
Dumm said grants sometimes become available to offset some of those expenses, and the court has applied for a couple of them.
"We were successful on one, but not on the other," Dumm said. "I think having meetings like this and really talking about these things, you're more prepared for when these grants do come up."
In the meantime, Biddinger said she would be taking the information from Tuesday's session back to the Attorney General's office to formulate a plan of action locally, but the most important thing to remember is that heroin addiction affects everyone.
"We have to remember these are human beings, and this is a humanitarian effort more than anything else," she said.