For more than three years a diverse group of government officials, community and religious leaders and media specialists from across the region has been working to stem the opioid epidemic that continues to impact the area.
The Greater Than Heroin coalition, together with community and religious leaders and media specialists, hosted another lunch and learn program, “Intervening Today – Hope for Tomorrow” on April 11 at Executive Caterers at Landerhaven in Mayfield Heights. The free event was a response to the recent shift in drug use from heroin to cocaine laced with fentanyl.
“The opiate crisis rages on,” said Father Bob Stec, pastor of St. Ambrose Parish in Brunswick, and a leader of the Greater Than Heroin coalition. “People are dying. Families are hurting. The impact on our community is real. We need to come together to learn how this epidemic has changed and to renew our commitment to work together to bring help, hope and healing to those in need. Together we are stronger than this epidemic,” he added.
Hosting the lunch and learn were the Dalton Foundation, Marcus Thomas, THINK Media, the U. S. Attorney’s office in Cleveland and Greater Than Heroin.
Father Stec said everyone has been touched by or knows someone who has been touched by the opioid crisis. Just this past week, he said a 32-year-old man died. “He was a great guy and had every reason to live.”
Mike Tobin, community and public affairs specialist with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Cleveland -- and a former Plain Dealer reporter – recalled writing a story for the newspaper about three overdose deaths in one weekend, which was unusual.
“That’s nothing now,” he said, noting that Cuyahoga County alone is on track for more than 750 overdose deaths this year. Statistics from the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office show that cocaine was a factor in 45 percent of all fatal overdoses last year – the highest percentage in more than a decade.
In Lorain County, which has been described as an epicenter for Northeast Ohio’s opioid epidemic, cocaine was detected in 54% of overdose deaths last year, according to preliminary statistics. Cocaine also was detected in half of Lorain County’s overdose deaths in 2017.
“This is the biggest law enforcement and public health crisis this community has ever faced,” Tobin said.
People build up a tolerance to cocaine, but when it is laced with fentanyl, it becomes deadly, he said, and often African Americans are the victims. Previously, white suburbanites accounted for most overdose deaths. Tobin said the cocaine can be cross contaminated by drug dealers, probably with fentanyl. He shared the story of a friend who is a suburban firefighter and who revived one person twice -- in the same day -- after the person overdosed.
“There are no safe drugs. We must get that message out,” he said. “We all have a calling to jump in and do what we can to fight this.”
“Thank God the heroin numbers have dropped, but now we’re dealing with fentanyl and we need to get the word out,” Father Stec said, echoing Tobin’s plea.
Marcus Thomas has a team working on an advertising campaign that will identify the problem, who the users are, why they use and for how long they’ve used. Heroin was a well-defined problem that could be tackled easier than the cocaine/fentanyl mix. Defining the problem and increasing awareness are keys to the campaign.
Members of the Marcus Thomas team said they are working on a program that “will disrupt the culture without scare tactics or white noise” and will target the wide range of current and future cocaine users with a non-judgmental campaign.
The prototype shows simple things like a bottle of water or donuts. The message asks if a person knew that drinking or eating those things could kill them, would they still do it? The plan is to provide a link to resources, including a “Test Your Coke” campaign. The group agreed that it’s best not to use cocaine, but if someone does, the hope is that they can ensure it isn’t laced with fentanyl.
The campaign would include social media, outdoor billboards, a poster campaign and an online landing page in an effort to get the message out to users and reduce the number of overdoses and deaths.
“We need to stir up the regional conversation again,” Father Stec said.
Barbara Campbell from the Dalton Foundation said they are tweaking relink.org, an online digital marketplace with resources for addiction, recovery and reentry. She said relink.org is a faith-based nonprofit organization that provides a free, user-friendly, up-to-date, searchable platform connecting those in need with local addiction recovery and reentry resources. The site lists thousands of resources across the state and also features resources to help recovering addicts locate employment leads.
Since drugs and human trafficking often are connected, Campbell said there are resources to assist human trafficking victims, also.
“Reentry and human trafficking are front and center,” she said.
Campbell said they are looking for input to help improve relink.org and also are in talks with app developers regarding creation of an app for IOS and Android phones.
Father Stec encouraged attendees to spread the word about the 17thnational Prescription Drug Take Back Day, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 27. The event provides a safe, convenient and responsible way to dispose of prescription drugs and educates the public about the potential for substance abuse. He said removing unused, expired medications from the medicine cabinet and taking them to a collection site that day is another step toward fighting the problem.
Call 800-882-9539 or visit GreaterThanHeroin.com for more information or drop-off locations.
Attendees received resources they can share within the community to continue fighting the problem.
Information also was shared about the Addiction & Family Member Empowerment Conference that will take place on May 4 at the Holiday Inn in Independence. Roy Poillon, executive director of the organization, said it will be the largest such event in the state that will help people learn what to do, how to do it and to network with those who can help. Cost is $5 per person in advance – register at Eventbrite.com – or $10 on event day.
Poillon said the organization is requesting that all faiths offer a prayer service at 2 p.m. that day to ask the Lord for divine intervention in dealing with the crisis.
For more information, email FamiliesImpactedByOpioids@gmail.com, visit FamiliesImpactedByOpioids.com or call 440-385-7605.