Drug overdoses have surpassed fatal traffic crashes as the No. 1 cause of accidental death in Portage County since January 2013, a trend that continued in the first six months of 2014.

Between Jan. 1 and June 13, 10 people died in Portage County from drug overdoses -- seven of those involving heroin -- according to Portage County Coroner Dean DePerro's office.

In comparison, only one person died in a traffic fatality in Portage County in the first six months of 2014, according to the Ohio Highway Patrol.

In 2013, Portage County saw 15 heroin-related overdoses, out of 22 total drug overdoses. The highway patrol reported 12 traffic-related fatalities in the county in 2013. Fifteen people died from heroin overdoses in Portage County in 2012, according to state and county officials.

It is a national trend as well. More than 100 people die from a drug overdose every day in the United States, and nearly 7,000 are treated in emergency rooms for the use and abuse of drugs, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Heroin is cheap and available everywhere in the county, according to the Portage County Sheriff's Office. Attorney General Mike DeWine has labeled the state's heroin problem an "epidemic" and created a special unit to help local police departments fight it.

Portage County law enforcement officials familiar with the heroin problem say that those who are overdosing range from long-time users to first-time users to people who recently were released from prison and returned to their addiction.

Along with property crimes committed to feed the habit, addicts are endangering the lives and welfare of others.

Recently, Brimfield police officers found a 1994 Cadillac sedan on Route 43 near Old Forge Road following a reported crash and property damage. A passenger, Jeffrey A. Cullen, 28, of Brimfield tried to destroy evidence of drug abuse by throwing a used hypodermic syringe into a nearby field, according to a criminal complaint filed in Portage County Municipal Court.

OFFICERS found the driver, Andie W. Serva Jr., 24, of Mogadore unconscious because of a heroin overdose, according to Brimfield Police Chief David Oliver. In the back of the car was an 8-month-old infant, "crying up a storm," he said. The child was turned over to relatives, and children's services professionals are investigating.

It was one of six non-fatal overdoses Oliver said his officers have responded to this year alone. "And there are people who want to legalize [heroin]?" he said.

Ravenna Police Capt. David Rarrick said Ravenna detectives are working with the Portage County Drug Task Force to investigate several recent overdoses in the city. So far, Ravenna officers have not been trained to use Narcan, even though they are often the first on the scene when 911 calls come in. Ravenna paramedics do carry the drug, he said.

Funding is one issue facing departments who might have an interest in issuing the potentially lifesaving medication to police officers.

Garrettsville Police Chief Anthony Milicia said his officers are finding more heroin the village, but so far have not had to respond to a fatal overdose there this year. He said the village has not discussed obtaining Narcan for police officers, "because the state hasn't discussed the funding yet."

"The training, which I've discussed informally, is something like four to six hours per person, so the training cost is minimal," Milicia said. "It's just getting the Narcan and that's where we're running into [funding] issues."

Oliver said he has researched prices for the drug, and said the Ohio Attorney General's Office is looking into funding a program to provide it to local police. For now, the Brimfield Fire Department has Narcan on hand, and firefighter/paramedics there are trained to use it, Oliver said.

Though they carry handcuffs and take people to jail, Oliver said his department also wants to save lives. "We're not just all about arrests," he said. "We're there to help"

Email: dobrien@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4157

Facebook: Dave O'Brien, Record-Courier