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Wednesday, January 4, 2017

What's Next After Record-Setting Heroin Overdose Deaths in Lorain County?

Posted By on Wed, Jan 4, 2017 at 12:31 PM

Lorain County Justice Center - ERIC SANDY
  • Lorain County Justice Center
Like much of Northeast Ohio, Lorain County saw an unprecedented increase in fatal overdoses in 2016. The coroner's office is awaiting final test results — which are due in three weeks or so, we're told — but the year's tally could reach 140. Without a doubt, the number will be higher at the end of 2017.

"In light of the life-saving availability of Narcan, that the number of opiate-related deaths continues to increase is a disturbing and scary indicator of the deadly potential of this drug," Judge John Miraldi tells Scene. "Imagine if we didn't have Narcan. There'd be thousands of people dying from this."

Miraldi runs the Lorain County Drug Court, and he'll see another four people graduate from that program in late February. All told, graduates must remain sober for 13 months; their felony charges will be dropped and, as Miraldi puts it, they can enjoy the lives that they've been rebuilding over the past year or so.

But drug courts, hailed nationally as a worthy antidote to our public health crisis, offer only a sliver of hope. Before a defendant reaches Miraldi's courtroom — or the drug courts in any other county — they must first be up against drug-related felony charges and they must want to pursue this goal. It's voluntary, and it's difficult. Miraldi's drug court docket started up in the fall of 2015, and it's been a unique learning process. There's cause for hope, and cause for despair.

"We haven't lost anybody in drug court to an overdose death," he says. "That may seem like a low bar, but that matters." Miraldi is careful to distinguish between the work of drug courts and the addition crisis writ large.

Zooming out, there's only so much that a drug court can accomplish. Places like Lorain County, Cuyahoga County (663 fatal overdoses in 2016) and Summit County (nearly 250 fatal overdoses in 2016) — places where this public health crisis is hitting hardest — simply don't have the infrastructure to meet the problem.

In Lorain County, there are no government detox facilities, unless you count the county jail. Waiting lists for treatment beds stretch out for weeks or months. Narcan is freely available, but medication like Vivitrol costs more than $1,000 per month (depending on particular insurance coverage).

The web of dead-end problems tying up this disease isn't loosening. Not yet.

"I'm pleased with everything that's happening within the recovery court, because in light of a very dire, deadly epidemic, we're seeing hope. We're seeing lives changed," Miraldi says. "My concern is it's a pebble in the ocean. But at least it's making a ripple. I hope that doesn't sound defeatist, but that's the reality."

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