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Drug abuse topic of HCCF forum

Representatives from the mental health, education, medical and law enforcement fields discussed possible ways to tackle the abuse of opioids and other drugs in the county at a Harrison County Community Foundation-sponsored panel Thursday evening.
To start the conversation, Brett Stilwell, president of the HCCF board of directors, asked panelists to consider what programs could be funded by the Foundation in Harrison County to curb drug abuse.
Lindasue Farrell, a clinical social worker at LifeSpring Health Systems, said programs funded should address addicts’ needs for physical, social, spiritual, mental and emotional treatment.
‘Seventy-five percent of patients I see either have a substance issue or are in an environment with one,’ she said.
Dr. Paul Fleming, emergency medical physician at Harrison County Hospital in Corydon, said opioid-related emergency room visits seem to be on the decline, thanks to the national spotlight placed on the drug in recent years.
‘A lot of the press we’ve been seeing has had an impact,’ he said. ‘I see fewer overdoses than I did two or three years ago.’
Jeff Skaggs, an adult probation officer for Harrison County Superior Court, said methamphetamine has surpassed opioid abuse as the county’s biggest drug-related concern.
‘In 2018, more people were using meth than marijuana,’ he said, adding the drug is more accessible than ever and cheap too because suppliers are lacing it with fentynal, a dangerous and inexpensive synthetic opiate that’s 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine.
Emily Stumler, Harrison County’s chief deputy prosecutor, said there’s a ‘chicken and egg’ relationship between mental health and drug abuse, meaning the two often go hand in hand, but it’s hard to tell which came first.
‘Most of these people, when they’re clean, they’re not bad people,’ she said. ‘They’re just trying to treat whatever’s wrong with them.’
Stumler said in recent years state lawmakers have encouraged keeping low-level offenders out of jail by reducing mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines for non-violent and substance-related crimes.
The Harrison County Justice Center, however, is the biggest mental health care provider in the county, she said, and, if offenders don’t go to jail, they still need treatment.
‘That’s something the legislators didn’t think through,’ Stumler said.
She said the state needs either tougher penalties so they can provide treatment to addicts or more mental health resources for them to use.
‘We can put the dealers in prison, and we do do that … but what about the person that starts with knee surgery? Or the person that starts with mental illness?’ she said.
Skaggs agreed with Stumler, saying legislators failed the state’s residents because they didn’t want to foot the bill for prisoners. He said some people need jail to get sober and stabilize their lives.
Skaggs recalled four addicts who died during one six-week period while out of jail with cases pending. He said a lot of the time, offenders need to get away from the environment that enables their drug use.
‘Transitional houses have always been the most successful thing that we’ve used,’ he said.
Skaggs said outpatient treatment can give people tools for success, but such programs can’t be utilized unless the offenders are stable.
‘And people on opiates or meth often are not stable,’ he added.
Skaggs said parents on drugs are too distracted to properly raise their kids.
‘We have a generation of grandparents raising their (grand)children,’ he said. ‘What’s going to happen 15 years down the road?’
This tied in with some suggestions from attendees, who said it’s easier to get through to a grandparent than a parent on drugs. Some recommended educational programs or support groups for people who are raising their grandkids.
Dr. Mark Eastridge, superintendent of the South Harrison Community School Corp., said this problem is compounded further by the incarceration of parents.
‘We’ve had students, for some of them, you wouldn’t believe the experience they have at home,’ he said. ‘You sit them down to try to learn, and they say, ‘I’m just trying to survive and you want me to learn math?’ ‘
Eastridge said it’s ‘tremendously challenging’ for a student and the school to deal with incarcerated parents, but he agreed with Skaggs and Stumler that more treatment options are needed in the community.
‘The substance gets in the way of nurturing and proper decision making,’ he said.
Meribeth Adams-Wolf, executive director of Our Place Drug & Alcohol Education Services Inc. in New Albany, which provides services for residents of several counties, including Harrison, said distracted or addicted parents often fail to meet children’s ‘serve and return’ needs enough, which can lead to developmental problems.
She said too much emphasis is placed on fixing problems that arise rather than preventing them in the first place.
‘Those (substance-abuse problems) can be changed, but we have to put the prevention programs in place,’ she said.
Harrison County Sheriff Nick Smith agreed with Adams-Wolf that prevention is the key to stopping drug abuse.
‘You’re not going to ‘arrest away’ the issue,’ he said.
Smith said there are dozens of root causes for substance abuse, but he believes ‘the solution is Jesus.’
He said the county’s jailhouse ministries have seen a lot of success in turning addicts’ lives around through spiritual healing.
‘Because we’re not naive, we know that faith heals, but we know that there are problems,’ he said.
Smith said the jail is instituting a new program aimed at reducing recidivism, modeled after Morgan County’s jail, which saw a 57% rate of success over five years after implementing it.
The program identifies inmates who choose to participate in sobriety programs and makes sure they are placed in cells together, rather than with the general population.
Smith said keeping those who want to get clean away from those who don’t care can help recovering addicts by placing them in an environment conducive to success before they ever leave the jail.
Smith introduced Steve Coleman as the law enforcement officer responsible for many of the major Harrison County drug busts the past several years when he worked as an undercover drug/narcotics operator for the sheriff’s department.
‘We’re never going to win this war on drugs; it’s not going to happen,’ Coleman said. ‘But let me tell you, because of the hard-working men and women here, (users and dealers) are going to be looking over their shoulders.’
He said most dealers in the county these days are just addicts supporting themselves and their friends.
Coleman said lately the department has had trouble setting up sting operations because dealers from other communities don’t want to conduct sales in the county.
‘We have recorded voice mails from drug dealers saying, ‘Harrison County? I’m not going there; those cops are crazy’,’ he said.
Near the conclusion of the program, Adams-Wolf urged Foundation board members to think ‘long-term’ regarding funding.
Eastridge agreed, saying that even if everything the county tries is ‘wonderfully effective,’ it will take time to see progress.
‘We’re trying to fix a generational issue,’ Adams-Wolf said.
This community conversation was the first in a series of panel discussions to be hosted by the HCCF. Future topics for panels include education and community economic development.