(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the seventh in a series of stories concerning the opioid crisis that our communities are facing, presented as a cooperative effort of The Ledger Independent, WFTM Radio and Comprehend, Inc. Today’s story deals with law enforcement and the challenges they face in connection with drugs in the community.)
Mason County Coroner David Lawrence described it as “playing Russian roulette with a needle.”
Unfortunately, he’s seen way more of the results of that deadly game that he or anyone else would like.
In 2017, 10 drug-related deaths required Lawrence’s attention, the majority of them caused by heroin, sometimes in combination with other drugs. In 2016, there were seven drug-related deaths in Mason County.
In addition to heroin, which seems to be a constant, other drugs found in the overdose victims includes fentanyl, alprazolam, cocaine, amphetamine, oxycodone, morphine and gabapentin, Lawrence said.
“Because it’s a cheaper class of drugs, people don’t understand the dangerous levels that are involved or what they are mixing the drug with today,” he said.
Without the introduction of Narcan, the opioid-reversing drug now carried by first responders, the number of deaths from overdoses would likely be much higher, Lawrence said.
Maysville Police Chief Ron Rice said the current crisis can be traced back to the abuse of prescription drugs a decade ago when “pill mills” in Florida provided drugs to the area.
“Prescription pills got us in this predicament, but through legislation we’ve somewhat gotten a handle on that,” he said.
The pills had gotten expensive, sometimes up to $100 a pill, Assistant Police Chief Jared Muse said. So addicts turned to a cheaper substitute — heroin.
The first indications that heroin was an issue in the area may have come when the body of Ryan Cooper was found along Kentucky 8 in Mason County, dumped by his companions after overdosing on heroin and left alone to die in July 2012. Three people were charged in connection with his death.
And if using heroin wasn’t dangerous enough, heroin laced with fentanyl and carfentanyl began showing up, Rice said. That combination was responsible for the deaths of 27 people in just a few hours in West Virginia in 2016.
MPD Communications Specialist Mike Palmer recalled responding to a possible overdose where the individual was cyantotic and was struggling to breathe or wasn’t breathing at all. He was able to administer Narcan as he had been trained to. By the time EMS arrived, the OD victim was up and responding, he said.
Each police officer carries two doses of Narcan in a kit that includes instructions, an incident record card and gloves for the officer. But, Palmer and Muse acknowledged that with the introduction of other drugs into the mixture, two doses are probably not going to be enough to be effective.
“Going forward, fentanyl is not even touching it; EMS arrives on scene and has to administer more,” Palmer said.
There is also another concern that comes with the deadly mixtures — that is exposure for police, EMS and even the coroner to the fentanyl and carfentanyl by touch. Carfentanyl is particularly lethal since it is 100 times more potent than fentanyl.
If an officer comes into contact with the drug, it is likely their first exposure to opioids, making them more vulnerable than the addict to the drug and its effects, officials said.
For Mason County Sheriff Patrick Boggs, making sure those who supply the deadly doses to addicts pay for the results is a mission.
“It brings closure but it will never bring their loved one back,” Boggs, who has successfully sent several cases forward through the Federal Court system, said.
Boggs said he learned about the process at a seminar and wanted to see if his department could produce results. It did and he gives credit to his deputies who kept their noses to the grind stone, making trips back and forth to Covington to meet with U.S. attorneys, carrying evidence back and forth and working with Federal prosecutors.
One of the first cases Boggs and his deputies tackled was the overdose death of Amanda Borgmann.
In August, 2016, Borgmann was discovered at the park and ride near the Orangeburg Fire Department, dead of an overdose caused by a combination of fentanyl and morphine, officials said.
“I can show you the file from Miss Borgmann when she passed away, it’s a 3-4 inches thick file,” Boggs said. “I wouldn’t even want to guess how many hours (deputies) Germann and Fritz put in on that case. It takes a toll on these deputies’ personal life and emotional life.”
But Boggs said early on it should send a message to those selling or sharing drugs — there will be a price to pay for their actions.
Boggs, like Rice and even Lawrence, said there is a concern for not just his deputies who come into contact with drugs, but also the public at large.
“Transfer is so easy now,” Boggs said, when an action as innocent as taking a driver’s license from a driver who has used it to cut drugs can mean death for the person handling the license.
Boggs predicts, if the increasing deadly drug trend doesn’t reverse, that the day will come, perhaps sooner than later, when every officer walking the streets “will be suited up” with gloves. “They may even be wearing masks,” he said.
“Narcan could just as well be used on an officer at the scene as it could a victim,” the sheriff said.
“What’s so worrisome is community safety,” Boggs said. Needles disposed of on the ground, maybe even with some of the drugs still in them can not only pose a threat of overdose to the public but also contain blood-borne pathogens like hepatitis or AIDS, he said.
Boggs said he has been surprised at how big the problem has become in this area, at least somewhat.
“I speak with my wife daily and tell her that nothing surprises me, nothing shocks me anymore,” Boggs said. “It seems you can always find a connection with Maysville and I don’t think we’re spared from the drugs finding a connection with Maysville.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Ledger Independent, WFTM Radio and Comprehend Inc. will host a community forum on May 31, at the Mason County Middle School Commons, held in conjunction with the current newspaper series, Communities in Crisis: The Opioid Epidemic Hits Home. Robert Roe, WFTM general manager, will serve as moderator with the forum getting underway at 6:30 p.m.