In his 14 years as a narcotics investigator, Sgt. Larry McLaughlin has seen a significant shift in patterns of drug use. When he started out, he recalls, most of his arrests were for selling or using crack cocaine. Now they are for opioids or heroin.
McLaughlin is part of a drug task force in Mahoning County, Ohio, which includes Youngstown and several other blue-collar communities. “Heroin and opioids have made a huge impact around here,” he says. “It’s really leading the charge as far as deaths, thefts, property crimes in this area,” he says.
The county’s death toll from drug overdoses has been steadily rising in recent years—from 61 in 2015 to 93 in 2016, and by mid-May was on track to surpass 100 for 2017. That’s due in part, McLaughlin says, to the fact that some heroin now also comes laced with the powerful but deadly analgesics fentanyl and carfentanyl.
McLaughlin has advice for physicians who prescribe opioids “Give your patients quality time and quality treatment,” he says. “If there are alternatives, seek those. And follow up to make sure they’re using [the medications] correctly, and if they’re not, cut them off immediately.
“Doctors took an oath to preserve and defend people’s lives, just like I did,” he adds. “Don’t just push them through your office, help to guide them through life.”
OxyContins were the first opioids to appear in his jurisdiction, McLaughlin says, and when they did they spread rapidly. The fact that they cost as much as $65 per pill, led to other problems. “I don’t care what you do for a living, if you’re taking four or five at a time multiple times a day, that’s going to add up to quite a bit of money in a hurry,” he notes.
When users can no longer obtain opioids from doctors or afford to buy them on the street, McLaughlin says, they turn to heroin. It costs less and creates a similar feeling of euphoria—but only temporarily.
“After a while they get to a point where they’re no longer getting high,” he says. “They’re not using it to party, it’s so they can just get out of bed and function until the next day, when they have to do it all over again. They’re just maintaining, trying to function enough to get through the day,” he says.
“Not everyone using these drugs are rotten people,” he adds. “Nobody wants to be stealing from their family, but these drugs get such control it has them doing things they can’t believe they’re doing.” McLaughlin estimates that up to 90% of property crimes and thefts in the area he covers are opioid-related. “People are doing what they have to to get their drugs,” he says.
Although Mahoning County has been hit hard by job losses and population decline, McLaughlin disputes the widely-held belief that opioid abuse is a symptom of poverty and despair. “All walks of life are affected by this,” he says. “People in the city, the suburbs, different races, everyone. I’ve seen it hit people from great families and from broken homes. It doesn’t make any difference.”
McLaughlin advocates a three-pronged approach to curbing the opioid epidemic, starting with law enforcement—“targeting and arresting the people who are putting this poison on our streets,” he says. In addition, he favors expanded treatment facilities for people seeking to break their addictions, and education, starting at a young age.
“I often speak at [elementary] schools and do the best I can, but what happens after that?” he says. “I think kids need to be exposed to the harsh realities of what these drugs do, and it needs to be constantly reinforced to let them know ‘hey, this is bad.’”