She is sick of it.
As Whitehall mayor, Kim Maggard has seen the drug epidemic ravage her community, resulting in too many addicts and too many deaths, and forcing her administration to spend heavily trying to stop the gush of heroin and other drugs into her largely low-income city of 18,600.
“We’re taking a horrible hit on drug addiction right now,” Maggard said. “Maybe we can stop this stranglehold it has on us. It’s not what life should be.”
Statistics confirm that the eastern suburb of Columbus needs help: In 2015, Whitehall had 39 opiate-related deaths per 100,000 people, almost four times the national number. The rate in Franklin County is 29. Across Ohio, it’s 22 deaths per 100,000.
Starting next summer, Whitehall will be a kind of laboratory as Franklin County officials — with the help of $400,000 in federal money — plan to try programs to help the city combat its deadly drug plague.
In the first nine months of this year, Maggard said, Whitehall’s fire and police departments saved more than 100 lives using naloxone, a nasal spray sold under the commercial name Narcan, which can reverse opioid overdoses.
“That is over 10 a month,” Maggard said, shaking her head.
The frustrated mayor says existing laws and services haven’t succeeded. She’s watched as her city — east of Bexley and a straight shot from Downtown via Broad Street — became a favorite stop for drug dealers and their customers. Because the community is small, Maggard knows many of those who have become addicted. Or worse.
“We had some (residents) who committed suicide because they couldn’t deal with their addiction,” Maggard said. “We know this area is a very big hotbed for taking drugs and overdoses.”
She also knows Whitehall, with an annual budget of $30 million, can’t face it alone.
The $400,000 awarded to Franklin County by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance will focus on Whitehall. The county is stressing programs that can provide addicts with drug-treatment services instead of jail.
The most significant change the federal money will pay for is what is believed to be Ohio’s first Mayor’s Drug Court.
Typically, mayor’s courts are for traffic tickets and misdemeanor criminal charges while drug courts are for those charged with more serious felony drug crimes. Under the new program, Whitehall will use its mayor’s court to also deal with drug-related crimes so it can offer help to addicts.
For example, those charged in Whitehall’s Mayor’s Court with theft — often committed to pay for drugs and feed addictions — can tell the judge they want help fighting addiction. The judge will connect them with services. The criminal charges and fines will be dropped if they enter treatment and undergo weekly meetings with the judge.
“We have to know you are making progress,” Maggard said.
She’s excited about the new court because she believes addiction, especially opioid addiction, changes brain chemistry to make the body crave drugs. Addiction, Maggard said, should be treated like other diseases and not as a personal shortcoming.
“Punishment is not a deterrent,” Maggard said. “We have to provide them an incentive to get well.
“I don’t think we’ve been doing that well for those who are addicted.”
Whitehall’s woes and small size make it the perfect place to try new things, said Michael Daniels, Franklin County’s Justice Policy coordinator.
Whitehall also was chosen, Daniels said, because “they recognize they have a problem.”
Melissa Pierson, deputy director of the county’s Office of Justice Policy and Programs, wrote the grant application after discussing it with Maggard.
“Clearly, it’s a community in need,” Pierson said.
In addition to the misdemeanor drug court, Pierson said, the federal money will provide “widespread distribution” of Narcan to family and friends of those deemed at risk for addiction or those with addiction issues who recently were released from jail. It also will host town hall meetings focusing on training people how to administer Narcan and plans a clean-needle exchange program.
Whitehall will get help from the Franklin County Sheriff’s Heroin Overdose Prevention & Education, or HOPE, Task Force. It will concentrate efforts to provide Narcan to that area, provide treatment for addicts, and arrest and prosecute drug dealers.
“Why not?” Maggard asked. “If we can help somebody, maybe they can help somebody else, and so on. Why not?”
The goal of the three-year program is to reduce opioid overdose and overdose deaths by 20 percent in Whitehall and Franklin County.
This story originally appeared in The Columbus Dispatch.