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Hgtn. officials discuss ongoing drug epidemic

Huntington County Sheriff Chris Newton opened the Wednesday, Nov. 17, community meeting by reading a news update on national drug overdose rates.
Huntington County Sheriff Chris Newton opened the Wednesday, Nov. 17, community meeting by reading a news update on national drug overdose rates. Photo by Katelynn Farley

On Wednesday, Nov. 17, the Huntington County Sheriff’s Department hosted a community meeting at Huntington North High School in order to discuss the rising issue of drug use, drug overdose occurrences and drug overdose deaths that have taken place in Huntington County.

 Representatives from several different Huntington County leadership offices, such as the Sheriff’s Department, Police Department, Prosecutor’s office, Drug Court and Coroner’s Office were there to speak on their particular office’s expertise on the matter. There were also several speakers who had been affected by drugs in one way or another, whether it be the loss of a loved one due to overdose or going through the struggle of addiction themselves.

Chris Newton –
Huntington County Sheriff

Huntington County Sheriff Chris Newton opened the meeting by greeting those who had gathered at the meeting and shared a news alert he had found recently regarding national drug overdose death numbers.

“Drug overdose deaths top 100,000 annually for the first time, driven by fentanyl,” Newton read. “America’s drug epidemic is the deadliest it’s ever been, new federal data suggests – more than 100,000 people have died of drug overdoses in the U.S. during a 12-month period, ending April 2021.”

This number, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, is a new high record – with overdose deaths jumping up over 28.5 percent from the same time last year.

Newton then recalled the last time a meeting like this had taken place – in 2016, many of the same community leaders gathered in the same school auditorium to learn about the effect that Heroin was having on the community of Huntington.

“We didn’t know a whole lot about heroin because we never really had it here. But we had a lot of folks that were asking for help,” Newton said. “I remember at the time, Captain (Malcom) Jones said that (fentanyl) was just something we heard about. We hadn’t seen it around here – and now, look at where we’re at five years later. Fentanyl is killing our kids and our loved ones hand over fist.”

Malcom Jones –
Detective Captain with the Huntington County Sheriff Department

After a brief prayer by local pastor Bobby Kemp, Malcom Jones was welcomed to start the informational portion of the meeting. Jones gave a brief history of addictive drugs such as morphine, heroin and fentanyl.

According to Jones, heroin is a “highly addictive drug derived from morphine” and is used to produce euphoria. It is a semi-synthetic product, whereas morphine, which is derived from the opium poppy plant, is a natural opiate.

“I think to myself sometimes, especially in my line of work, where does this stuff come from?” Jones said. “Who are the people that invent this? Who are the people that put these chemicals together and think it’s a good idea to put
 it into our bodies in the hopes of getting high?”

According to Jones, it was the makers of Bayer Aspirin that are responsible for the creation of heroin. In the late 1800s, Bayer trademarked heroin as a “less addictive alternative to morphine” and it was approved in 1907 by the American Medical Association. By 1913, though, there were over 200,000 Americans that were highly addicted to heroin – which prompted the Bayer company to halt all production of the drug.

Putting morphine and heroin aside, Jones went on to explain that fentanyl is unlike either drug – because it is completely manmade and 100 times more potent than heroin. And that potency, paired with the fact that there is no “product control” when it comes to illicit drugs, is one of the main reasons that so many people are overdosing and dying.

“It takes advanced scientific equipment to measure powdered fentanyl,” Jones said. “You can put a therapeutic dose of powdered fentanyl side-by-side with a fatal dose of powdered fentanyl and it would be impossible to distinguish between the two with the naked eye.”
Jones encouraged those who struggle with addiction to seek help – and urged those who are dealing drugs within the community to stop what they’re doing.

Cory Boxell – Detective Captain with the Huntington City Police Department
Detective Cory Boxell, with the Huntington City Police Department, was present to discuss different drug trends that have taken place in the community. He began with explaining that marijuana-related THC edibles, candies and snacks are becoming more and more prevalent – and stated that THC is “most definitely” a gateway drug to more dangerous substances.

Next, Boxell spoke about crystal meth, fentanyl and carfentanyl – and included photos of each. Boxell even went as far as to provide a visual aids that showed how a lethal dose of different drugs looked compared to others. For example, the difference between fentanyl and carfentanyl’s deathly dose was almost imperceptible – and carfentanyl is said to be 100 times more powerful and potent than fentanyl itself.

Boxell also stated that trends change quickly – and that they can vary from place to place even within the same state. For example, Boxell said that the department went to South Bend for a case in which fentanyl is being sold that comes in a liquid form and needs to be refrigerated.

 Jeremy Nix – Prosecutor

Next in line was Prosecutor Jeremy Nix, who gave details regarding an alarming rise in drug-related felony charges that the office had faced since 2013.

According to Nix, 30 percent of the cases that came through the Huntington County Prosecutor’s Office were drug-related in 2013. Just seven years later – in 2020 – that number jumped to 63 percent.

“And those are just the ones that contain a drug felony,” Nix said. “Many more crimes relate back to drugs – whether it be burglary a robbery, theft or fraud to get money for drugs…or neglect of a dependent because a parent is under the influence and can’t care for a child or because they leave drugs and paraphernalia out and a child has access to it, or if it’s domestic violence for those who are high on drugs.”

Jennifer Newton – Superior Court Judge and Drug Court Judge
Superior Court Judge Jennifer Newton handles all drug-related offenses in Huntington County. She stated that, in 2016, she “saw a great need” in the community to do something different than what was currently in place for dealing with drug offenses. So, Drug Court began.

Drug Court is a “multidisciplinary approach to dealing with someone who has a drug problem,” Newton said. There is a variety of members involved in Drug Court – prosecutor, defense attorney, law enforcement officers and peer recovery support members, just to name a few.

“We come at it from every angle to try to see what this person needs,” Newton continued.

Newton also explained that another key factor is Community Corrections – which provides electronic monitoring home detention, but also has services such as employment assistance and education.

“A lot of times, when people come out or prison or jail, they don’t have their license or they don’t’ know where their social security card is,” Newton said. “There are a lot of things that we all take for granted that people need help with.”

Just this year, Huntington County acquired an area at Victory Noll, which has been named the O’Donnell Center. This area will play a key role in getting addicts the help they need in going down the right path. There will be a residential work-release program and, in the future, a residential treatment facility.

“One of the things that I hear over and over again and see over and over again is that people need to change their people, places and things,” Newton said. “And just putting them on electronic monitoring and putting them back into their house or their environment does not get them that. And I have seen people fail because of that.”

Another option to get drug offenders help is by starting a Jail Chemical Addictions Program (JCAP) in the newly-expanded Huntington County Jail. JCAP is a “self-governing” program that involves intense treatment separate from the population – a possibility that was never available until now.

Rod Jackson and Phil Zahm – Coroner’s Office
Lastly for the informational part of the meeting, Rod Jackson and Phil Zahm, of the Coroner’s Office, shared details of what they have been experiencing with the rise of drug overdose deaths. Jackson explained that there is a five-member office located in the jail – and that the coroner only comes to a scene once a death has occurred. Documentation has to take place, so that the information can be used in a court case if need be.

Jackson also stated that, so far this year, there have been 93 death cases that the coroner’s office has been involved in – and that 16 so far have been officially declared drug overdose deaths. Two more cases are pending.

Jackson was elected to the position just this year. Zahm, however, was elected in 2010. And he had four drug overdose deaths that year.

After community leaders completed their portions of the meeting, personal testimonies were shared by several individuals – a child who had lost a parent and a sibling to drug overdoses this year, a former drug user and dealer who had turned their life around, and a former drug user who now helps drug users turn their lives around.

Chad Hammel, with the Huntington County Sheriff’s Department, read a letter aloud from the child who had lost a parent and a sibling to drug overdose death this year. The letter detailed how badly the child missed his father, and how much the loss of his family members had affected him. The letter stated that he had trouble sleeping at night because he often faced the same nightmare over and over again – his father choosing to do drugs no matter how much the child urged him to stop.

With the closing of the meeting, attendees were invited to exit to the area outside of the HNHS auditorium, which had several tables set up with different kinds of resources for those seeking help. Local churches, community leaders, recovery homes and others were all present to speak with those seeking help.