MOUNT VERNON — Laura Webster, 9-1-1- operations director, reports that drug overdose, drug-related, and burglary calls decreased in 2019 compared to 2018.
Tina Cockrell, Drug Free Communities Grant coordinator, says that the 2019 Pride survey from local schools shows that overall, substance use decreased nearly 3% compared to 2017. Relating to prescription drugs, cocaine, and heroin, the decline was about 0.75%.
County Prosecutor Chip McConville reports that for the first time since 2013, the number of felony indictments declined (348 in 2019 compared to 361 in 2018). More specifically, drug-related indictments dropped from 248 in 2018 to 205 in 2019.
Collectively, maybe, just maybe, the numbers show a glimmer of hope that Knox County is making some headway in the fight to reduce drug use.
“It's too early to tell,” said McConville. “It seems like we're making headway. I hope we're making headway. But the 2020 numbers will tell.”
He attributes the decline in indictments to several things.
“We are getting a lot more drug recovery agencies. That helps decrease things on the demand side,” he said. “Law enforcement stops the supply side. Charging them is the front end of the process.”
Knox County's conviction rate last year was 80%. Among drug-related indictments, the rate is higher.
“We've got really good law enforcement out there,” said McConville. “We've taken some of the major players out of the game, some of the more seasoned players that knew their way around. There are not as many people who have been in the drug game for a long time. Just like any activity, they're making rookie mistakes.”
In 2019, law enforcement — including the Knox County Sheriff's Office, Mount Vernon and Columbus police departments, and the CODE Task Force (Central Ohio Drug Enforcement) — broke up a major drug distribution group.
“Of the 34 individuals identified, 31 were indicted,” said McConville. “Most have been convicted or [their cases] are pending.”
The drug ringleader, who was from out of town, was not indicted locally. However, the Drug Enforcement Administration has taken him off the streets.
Changes in drug of choice
From 2011 to 2014, indictment percentages for methamphetamine, heroin, and prescription drugs were fairly even. The exception is 2012, when heroin spiked to 55% (meth was 17%, prescription drugs 23%). In 2015, meth and heroin jumped to 45% and 47%, respectively. Prescription drugs dropped to 10%.
In 2016, meth indictments climbed to 63%; heroin dropped to 15%. Since then, meth has ranked No. 1 locally as the drug of choice.
McConville said that part of the transition from heroin to meth stems from the availability of fentanyl.
“With fentanyl, heroin has a more deadly potential on a given occasion,” he explained. “[Plus] with meth, any method of ingestion will achieve the result.
“Cocaine is making a comeback statewide,” he continued. “We have not seen as much of that here because cocaine is more of a high-dollar drug.”
McConville said that because a prescription drug costs $1 per milligram of opiod, users shifted to heroin.
“Then we saw more of a shift to meth because Mexican cartels started supplying meth,” he said.
That Mexican supply caused the number of local meth labs, once prevalent, to disappear. There have been no meth lab busts in the county in the last four or five years.
Knox County has received nearly $1.5 million in federal and state funding over the past several years to fight drug addiction. Over $1 million came from two pieces of legislation authored or co-authored by U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH).
In April 2019, Portman visited the county and local stakeholders told him how they were spending the money. They also told Portman they needed more flexibility in how that money is spent. Much of it was earmarked for opioids, which was restrictive since the drug of choice in Knox County is meth.
Other states, facing the same problem, agreed with Knox County officials.
Portman, and the federal government, listened. With federal bipartisan agreement, states can now use federal dollars to counter addiction to cocaine and meth as well as opioids.
McConville agrees with that decision, and said it is not at all like the tobacco settlement money designed to treat tobacco-related health issues, treatment, and prevention. A settlement loophole allowed states to decide how they would spend the money. In many states, it went into the general fund.
“Opioids are actively in decline,” he said. “It's difficult to monetize tobacco money and fund the general fund, but if you are talking about drug funding, there's been a major shift from opiod to meth. In Knox County, do we have people with an opioid problem? Sure we do. But we have far more people with a meth problem.
“The mix has changed a lot,” he added. “The government is usually three to four years behind.”
Still more to do
McConville acknowledged there might be a glimmer of hope that drug efforts are paying off, but said there is more to be done.
“Law enforcement changed some of their approach, and that may be why we've been seeing more cases,” he said. “They're actively doing interdiction on the street. They're increasing efforts to shut down properties that are havens for drug activity.”
The use of full-time drug officers and additional K9 units also help local law enforcement, as does increased information sharing.
“There's a lot of good cooperation between all of the agencies in the county. The whole thing is not as siloed as it used to be,” said McConville.
He cautioned, however, that just as law enforcement changes tactics, eventually drug dealers will adapt and change their tactics. Law enforcement also still has to contend with other types of crimes.
“The burglary load has really gone down in the last year, which could be tied to moving the ball on the drug stuff for people stealing to support their habit,” he said. “But we still have a steady procession of sex-oriented offenses.”
He also said there has to be recognition that the drug trade is driven by demand.
“Dealers come and go. When someone exits the drug game, someone else is going to step up and take their place,” he said. “It's cyclical in who's involved. It's cyclical in what drug is the flavor of the year. What we're seeing now is that newer, less-experienced people are involved in drug traffic in Knox County.”
Pride survey results
Cockrell, the Drug Free Communities Grant coordinator, also works with the KSAAT (Knox Substance Abuse Action Team) coalition. KSAAT sponsors the biennial Pride survey.
More than 2,000 students from the five local school districts and the Knox County Career Center participated in the 2019 survey. Students cover grades six through 12.
Although the overall average of students involved in substance use declined, including drug-related, there was an increase in the use of marijuana. Cockrell said there might be a correlation to perception of harm.
Now that marijuana has been legalized for medical use, the perception of harm has declined. Research shows that when the perception of harm increases, substance use decreases and vice versa.
Cockrell is finalizing the survey results and plans to release a report in the next few days.