SOUTHERN OHIO: Community organizes against Rx drug abuse

April 21, 2010

Wesley Workman didn't know those crisp spring days would be his last.

Handsome and popular, Wesley led his football team in tackles for three years. He was a little lazy when it came to studying but the kind of kid who befriended everyone.

When he playfully turned the gun to his head, laughing with his buddies, his father upstairs, Wesley felt invincible. Drugs will do that.

At about the same time, Bob Walton Jr. was connecting the dots.

A township trustee in Scioto County where the hills of Appalachia rise along the Ohio River, Walton saw burglary reports jump from the occasional smash-and-grab to nine and 10 break-ins a night. Ambulance squad calls showed a huge uptick in 20- and 30-year-olds going into respiratory arrest. White collar crime was on the rise, and more and more kids were coming to school hungry.

New pain clinics opened in the township and across the county. The number of prescriptions written for "hillbilly heroine" -- painkillers like Oxycontin and Vicodin -- skyrocketed. For the first time, unintentional poisoning -- nearly all from prescription drugs -- was the leading cause of death in Scioto County.

"What is happening here is immoral," said Walton, a member of All Saints, Portsmouth. "For the first time in my life, I truly believe in evil. I believe evil is at work here."

Walton's first effort in 2008 to address the problem of prescription drug abuse stalled. The Drug Enforcement Administration said they were focusing on the issue. Walton tried to quietly gather people to fight the problem. Some were interested; others preferred to ignore it. The DEA left town. It was hard to get any traction.

So Walton relied on his lifelong interest in politics and began community organizing. He contacted stakeholders -- the police and the prosecutor's office, addiction and recovery agencies, family members and victims, mothers and fathers. At the first town hall in November, 120 people showed up. At the next meeting, 250 came. In late March, it was standing room only at the Pipefitter's Hall in downtown Portsmouth.

"People are saying, 'Enough is enough,'" said Walton. "People are willing to stand up and say, 'No more. This cannot continue. We are taking our community back.'"

'Miami of the north'
Scioto County is known to the DEA as "Miami of the north," said Walton.

"We don't have the sunshine, beaches and warm weather, but we've got the drugs."

While most communities face drug problems, Scioto County has a number of factors creating a perfect storm for an epidemic. Despite a population of only 80,000, the county recently made the DEA's Watch List as one of the top ten counties in the nation for prescription drug trafficking. The county's location along U.S. 23 creates a pipeline to Columbus and bigger cities, and its proximity to Kentucky and West Virginia stymie a coordinated law enforcement approach. Added to the mix is poverty: Scioto County's unemployment rate hovers around 15 percent, and about a third of the children receive free or reduced lunches.

"We are at risk of losing an entire generation," said Walton. "This issue knows no boundaries, no socio- or economic lines. It affects everyone. I've heard from people in half-million dollar homes and from those in public housing who have a 20-something child who is hooked on painkillers. Their bank accounts are wiped out. They're raising their grandchildren, and they're trying to get help for their child. It is destroying entire families."

Drugs like Oxycontin and Vicodin are legal and can be prescribed in moderation by doctors for pain. And there are legitimate pain management clinics throughout the country. However, Walton listed some red flags to identify "pill mills."

"If your physician dispenses only controlled substances, if they have an armed guard in their parking lot, and if they take cash only, there's a problem," he said. Most of the time, these clinics aren't owned by the doctors but convicted felons. And although it's tough to track, law enforcement officials estimate pill mills generate $60,000 to $100,000 each week -- in cash -- Walton said.

The addiction is quick -- and harder to break than heroin. The mix of drugs often prescribed -- oxycodone and hyrocodone with anti-anxiety pills -- can be lethal. It's not that much different, said Walton, than the cocktail used up the road in Lucasville for the death penalty.

And the withdrawal is wicked. "You feel like there is no more air, like you're drowning," said Walton. "You would do anything to stop that, even stealing food from your children."

In just three years, the Counseling Center, the county's leading substance-abuse recovery agency, has seen a threefold increase in treatment requests. Eighty-five percent are for addictions to opiates -- oxycodone and hydrocodone.

Armed with these staggering statistics and encouraged by Walton's task force, the Portsmouth City and Scioto County health departments came together earlier this year and declared the county's prescription drug problem a "public health emergency." Just as if the county was facing an outbreak of H1N1 or a hard-hitting tornado, the health departments established an incident command strategy. The task force, at 30 and growing, includes mayors, sheriffs, addiction counselors, victims, prosecutors and federal drug agencies. Walton handles the logistics, and the group meets monthly at All Saints Episcopal Church.

"I'm one guy fighting to save my community," said Walton, a father of two young boys. "I found hundreds of people who wanted to help. Now we have a structure in place so that they can."

Lisa Roberts, a public health nurse with the Portsmouth Health Department, has taken a key role in fighting the prescription drug problem. Not only does she see the impact of the drug abuse on clients, but also she has several family members who have been -- or are –- addicted.

"They can get the prescription drugs as easy as candy on the street," Roberts said. "Drug dealers will even do home deliveries."

She praised Walton's role in rallying the community. A lot of people were content to ignore the problem, she said. But Walton was willing to take a stand -- and encourage others to join him.

"The H1N1 scare doesn't compare," Roberts said. "This is like a bio-terrorism event in the way it's causing death, disease and fear. The effect is the same as if there was a release of poisonous gas. This is a public health emergency. It's an epidemic."

Roberts' public stand comes with a cost. Last month, she opened her mailbox to find a crude bomb made out of a pop bottle. Authorities dismantled the bomb, and no one was hurt. But she refuses to back down.

"I will not be intimidated by these people," said Roberts. "There are enough people getting together now that we can take our community back. I'm not afraid of the drug dealers. I'm more afraid to not do anything -- to live in a place that doesn't care."

'Time to get things done'
Audrey Dotson understands irony.

For the first time in a long time, her daughter is drug-free. She's funny and loving.

"She's back to being my little girl," said Dotson. Then her voice breaks. "And I can't even hug her."

Dotson's daughter, Kara Garvin, is in prison, sentenced to life without parole in late March after a jury found her guilty on three counts of aggravated murder. According to the courts, Garvin and her boyfriend were looking for Oxycontin in December 2008 when they shot and killed three people in Franklin Furnace, a small community on the east side of Scioto County.

Dotson spent years trying to get her daughter help but "it took this for Kara to realize how bad her addiction was." Dotson believes her daughter is innocent of the charges and plans to fight for an appeal. At the same time, Dotson is out in the community, telling the story of how drugs can ruin so many lives.

"At first, I didn't want to talk about it. You never want to show the bad parts of your family, to let people think that the town drug addict could be your daughter or your son," said Dotson, who served as a public health nurse for nearly 20 years. "But I realized that there are more and more people having this kind of problem in their family."

The efforts of Walton and others to bring the problem to light are critical, she said.

"Bob isn't motivated by anything but a love and desire to see people get help and to make our county a better place for our children. And he's action-oriented. That's a good thing. Because we have talked things to death and got nothing done. It is time to get things done."

A prescription for success
The task force is taking a multi-pronged approach. Law enforcement officials are pledging to crack down on dealers and users. Petitions are circulating, asking Scioto County native Ted Strickland, the governor of Ohio, and President Barack Obama to strengthen the laws governing pill mills. Groups are working with medical agencies to tighten licensing and impose stiff penalties for doctors running illegitimate pain clinics. Counseling groups are implementing new projects to help addicts in recovery.

At the last town hall meeting, plans were made for a march of civil disobedience, perhaps ending in a local graveyard. Others intend to picket. Some churches and clergy leaders are stepping up as well.

"Churches are uniquely positioned to help fight this," said Walton. "They can offer education and community awareness. Members can collectively take a stand and put pressure on their elected officials."

On April 20, All Saints hosted a new support group -- for families and friends who have had a loved one die from prescription drug abuse.

Wesley Workman's mother, JoAnna Krohn, is organizing the support group. The date of the first meeting marked the two-year anniversary since her son played Russian Roulette and lodged a bullet in the left side of his brain.

Wesley had been to All Saints before, attending one or another of the many addiction recovery groups that the church hosts each week. Krohn is making it her life's work to help people find their way into these groups, their way into recovery. And she hopes that the story of her son's death will deter many young people from ever taking the first pill.

"Every choice you make is going to affect you. I kept hoping Wesley would grow up and make some changes, but he never got the chance. He will never grow up. Never get married. Never give me grandchildren," said Krohn. "He was my son. He was a good person who made some bad choices."

Despite his drug and alcohol abuse, Wesley's young organs were donated and helped save five other people.

"I take comfort in that," said Krohn. "And by sharing his story, I hope he will save other lives too."

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