Prescription drugs, when mixed with illegal substances, can create lethal cocktail.
The epidemic of prescription and illicit drug use in Utah's Castle Country has reached a tipping point. Law enforcement officials report that matters have become drastic enough to affect the vast majority of our community, making the battle they wage against substance abuse and addiction a battle for the future of Carbon County.
In December, the Sun Advocate published a five part investigative report, detailing the inner workings of local drug abuse. The reaction was immediate. While some were upset by the graphic nature of the stories, most said the articles painted an accurate portrait of the struggle taking place within the community. Area law enforcement and treatment officials have contacted the paper in January, reacting to the report and laying out the steps they are taking to rehabilitate those who need it and educate everyone else.
"The drug situation is the worst I've ever seen," said Wally Hendricks, a 23-year law enforcement veteran who is currently serving as a Drug Court Tracker for Carbon County Sheriff's Office. "And I mean worse by a long ways. The resurgence of opiate abuse has coupled with ongoing meth[amphetamine] problems to make the majority of addicts poly-substance abusers and that is killing a great many people."
Henricks and his partner Angie White oversee 70 total drug court participants between the area's felony and family drug court programs. A number they say could easily grow to 140 overnight if the required personnel and funding were available.
According to Hendricks, the problem with methamphetamine is still around and still "epidemic." Meth, however, has taken a back seat to the heroin/opiate/prescription problem.
The movement toward poly-substance abuse has created a cocktail which accounted for 24 drug related deaths and 18 suicides in Carbon County in 2013 alone.
Another frightening trend witnessed by both Hendricks and White is the ever-shrinking age at which local youth are starting to experiment and in some cases become addicted to life-threatening substances.
"We have seen kids with full blown opiate habits in junior high," said White. "It's a situation that incredibly scary."
According to Carbon County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy and Drug Court Supervisor Tom Stefanoff, the war on meth and meth labs in the 1990s and early 2000s allowed prescription opiates to "sucker punch" law enforcement officials. That lack of focus, coupled with a deficiency in laws addressing the prescription issue, created a perfect storm in which both legal and illegal opiates put a strangle hold on the community.
The large scale proliferation of drugs like Oxycontin and Oxycodone quickly led to a resurgence in heroin use. Heroin is cheaper than prescription narcotics and often times more powerful. It is also many times more deadly.
"We aren't doing this community any favors by hiding the truth," said Hendricks. "These drugs are killing our citizens. And we have found that the crimes committed to score an opiate are far more blatant than they are to score any other type of drug."
The issue facing law enforcement and the court system then is, what do they do now? According to Hendricks, a great deal of hope and success have come from the fact that law enforcement professionals across the board have changed their attitude concerning addiction and the individuals who are facing it.
"I spent the majority of a 23 year career locking these people up and it took a lot of convincing for me to see that jail and prison is not the answer," he said.
The steps toward an answer lie in treatment and the county's drug court programs, agreed Hendricks, White and Stefanoff. The case made by the trackers is that while many from the court do relapse after the program is over, for the two years they participate they are clean, they are healing, and they are paying taxes.
"The program works while the participants are in it," said White. "They are supervised with a minimal expense to the community and they learn how to live a productive life."
The cost to incarcerate an individual for the two year term of drug court would total over $40,000 if the person was in the county jail. In prison, the cost grows to over $64,000.
In the drug court, participants pay for the involvement. In a given week, $2,800 is taken in by Carbon County from the fees of Drug Court participants, making the program partially self-sustaining. An advantage of drug court which is difficult to quantify lies in the fact that participants are provided with intensive treatment instead of being warehoused.
"Do you know what it's like to fight a war for 20 years and lose the whole time?" asked Hendricks. "And then after 23 years to see that you can still win? That is an amazing thing. The good news here is that there is hope."
According to both Hendricks and White, the two things that will make the biggest difference in their crusade to abate substance abuse are open and honest community dialogue concerning the problem and the creation of a detox and inpatient treatment facility in the area.
"We need hope just like the addicts we supervise," said Hendricks. "And because of the drug court, we get that hope. It is exhilarating to know that the people we are involved with are doing well, some of them for the first time in a long time."
Just as the attitude of law enforcement has changed to meet the needs of the day, the protocols of drug court have also changed. When the program started in Carbon County in 2005, violent offenders were automatically screened out. Today, the court takes the most difficult of cases and according to Stefanoff they are succeeding with a great many of them.
"It makes for a tough job for our trackers," he said. "But the payoff is well worth it."
Moving forward, the biggest challenge to the court is funding. While the statistics showing the success of those in the program are overwhelming, state funding has been consistently cut, an issue Hendricks feels can only be addressed by local citizens addressing their elected officials.
In his mind the program should convince the most hardcore of conservatives based on fiscal responsibility alone. It is cheaper to rehabilitate these individuals than to jail them. As for liberals, the concept alone is a winner. We are helping people, he said.