NEW PHILADELPHIA — Attorney General Mike DeWine said there are lot of reasons to be discouraged about the heroin and opiate epidemic that is raging in Ohio, but there are also lots of reasons for hope.
"There is hope out there," he told a crowd of more than 200 people gathered at Welty Middle School in New Philadelphia Thursday evening for a forum on the epidemic.
DeWine described it "as the worst drug epidemic in my lifetime."
"What's different about it is it's everywhere," he said. "It's more likely to be in affluent suburbs, candidly, than in cities. And it's in all our rural counties. It touches every demographic."
In 2016, Ohio lost eight people a day to the epidemic, he said. "It was really more than that. This year, It's clearly going up. The wave is still coming."
The attorney general outlined several reasons for the situation.
About 15 years ago, doctors were told they weren't doing enough to treat pain and they faced pressure to do a better job, he said. At the same time, drug companies came out with new pain medications they said weren't very addictive.
"You had this perfect storm come together," DeWine said.
Second, there was a cultural change in the country. In the past, heroin was confined to the inner cities. People in the suburbs and rural areas didn't use it.
"There was a psychological barrier that stopped people, even people who were doing drugs, from using heroin," he said. "That barrier must be totally gone."
He also blamed Mexican drug cartels, telling the audience that most of the heroin used in Ohio comes from Mexico.
"They've got a perfect business model," DeWine said. "They're really good at what they do. They control it all the way up until you get to a place like New Philadelphia."
Drug dealers can get people hooked for $10 a day, but as the desire for drugs grow, people start taking more and more. Eventually, they might have a $1,000 a day habit. "Most of the crime you're going to find in every county in the state of Ohio is caused one way or another by this drug problem," he said.
Speaking to the news media before the forum, DeWine said the problem is not going to be solved by the state or federal government.
"The way we can turn this thing around is through grassroots efforts, county by county, community by community," DeWine said. "We're finding more and more people throughout the state of Ohio at the village level, the county level, who are doing some amazing work that's saving lives every single day. We need to hold them up as examples for other communities."
He favors education as one way to stem the tide of abuse.
"I strongly believe that we have to get on top of this problem, we have to get in front of this problem, and the best way to do that is through a curriculum, K through 12, 13 straight years," he said. "We do something every single year in every school in the state of Ohio to reach every child. Every expert who looks at this says, that's what you have to do. It's no different than teaching writing, arithmetic, anything else. You don't just wait until the fifth grade to do something."
He also spoke about a pilot program to help the children of drug addicts, noting that more than half of the kids in foster care today in Ohio are there at least in part because one or both parents is a addict.
Kentucky has a program that focuses more resources on counties where the problem is at its worst.
"What they do is surge in some resources where you have more case workers," he said.
Each case worker has fewer children and fewer families to deal with. With the program, Kentucky has seen children recovering faster.
DeWine has begun the program in 18 counties in southern Ohio to see how it works. The goal is to eventually expand it to more states.
The program Thursday, called TUSC Talk: An Evening to Discuss Heroin and Other Opiates in our Community, featured a a resource fair for the public and a round table discussion with area law enforcement, first responders and social service agencies.
State Rep. Al Landis, R-Dover, spearheaded the event after hearing the attorney general speak at a caucus event in January. "It's about problem-solving, and he's going to lead the way," Landis said of DeWine.
State Sen. Jay Hottinger, R-Newark, was also in attendance. "You can't legislate your way out of this," he said. "You can't incarcerate your way out of this. You can't educate your way out of this. But we have to continue to be talking about it. Tonight is an important night in Tuscarawas County."