‘Operation Street Smart’ tries to battle drug abuse

WHEELING — Area health care and law enforcement representatives sharpened their “street smarts” regarding illegal drug use Monday during an all-day seminar held at Wheeling Hospital.

John Sebring, Wheeling Hospital director of safety and security, said about 110 individuals representing heath care, law enforcement, business, social work, pre-hospital care, courts and schools attended the presentation.

Sebring said, “We continue our workplace violence program. My goal is to continue speaking to current trends and topics that affect our community and how we, as the hospital, can help with these mitigation efforts.”

Three officials from the Special Investigations Unit of the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department in Columbus conducted the “Operation Street Smart” seminar on a wide range of topics. Sgt. Dan Johnson said they give 155 presentations yearly.

Johnson said Franklin County’s heroin overdose prevention task force can help addicts get on a fast track to treatment. He said, “There’s a huge demand for treatment. There are long lines outside treatment facilities … They (addicts) need it right now. There might not be a tomorrow for them.”

Capt. Shawn Bain, who also serves as Ohio’s drug intelligence officer, said the Buckeye State has the nation’s highest number of opioid-related overdose deaths, while West Virginia has more opioid-related overdose deaths per capita than any other state.

Bain said West Virginia, with a population of 1.8 million, had 731 overdose deaths in 2015 and 844 overdose deaths — including 324 related to fentanyl — in 2016, with the rate of drug fatalities increasing 46 percent in the past four years. He said Ohio, with 11.61 million people, had 3,050 overdose deaths in 2015 and 4,050 fatalities in 2016.

“They’re more than numbers. They’re humans,” said Michael Powell, a retired sergeant who is in his 39th year of work in the narcotics field.

Powell said 90 percent of addiction starts in the teen years, with alcohol and marijuana being the initial substance that may open a door to usage of other drugs.

“In our drug interventions, we see a lot of enabling,” Powell said, adding, “We sit back. We don’t want to say anything. We don’t want to get (drug users) in trouble. But they’re already in trouble.”

During the seminar, the presenters showed various household items that can be converted for drug usage or concealment of drugs, as well as commercial products that resemble ordinary items but are designed for using or hiding illegal drugs.

They said many items used to consume or conceal illicit drugs are sold in “head shops,” paraphernalia shops and online.

When officers execute search warrants at residences now, they have to check refrigerators, freezers and pantries because these areas make “great hiding places” for drugs, Bain said.

The presenters also urged parents and law enforcement officers to learn to recognize household containers that have been adapted for drug use and lookalike products designed for illicit purposes.

“If you can’t imagine it, you won’t be able to find it,” Powell warned.

While opioids get a lot of attention, Powell said alcohol remains the top drug of abuse in the United States.

He said there were an estimated 88,000 alcohol-related deaths in the country in 2015, compared with 52,404 from drug overdoses — with opioids accounting for 33,091 of the fatalities.

The presenters explained how young people mask alcohol consumption and showed items used to conceal alcohol. Bain also explained non-traditional ways that youth ingest alcohol.

Even legal usage of pharmaceutical products is a big problem, according to Powell.

He said U.S. residents consume 75 percent of all pharmaceuticals in the world, 80 percent of opioids and 99 percent of Vicodin. Only the United States and New Zealand allow advertisement of drugs.