Stronger drug-fighting partnerships on the horizon for city

A stronger and more effective relationship between local and federal narcotics investigators is being forged in hopes of curbing the flow of heroin to Columbus.

This new development has been confirmed by Greg Westfall, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency’s assistant special agent in charge for Indiana, and Bartholomew County Sheriff Matt Myers.

Westfall said the DEA decided to enhance his agency’s relationship with the sheriff’s department and Columbus Police Department after he met with Myers and Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop.

The federal narcotics agent said both men displayed forward-looking leadership in dealing with the heroin problem, such as initiating a joint narcotics task force early last year.

“They are taking a proactive approach,” Westfall said. “They realize that if they approach the heroin problem individually, they will fail. But if we all work collectively, we will make progress and we will succeed.”

The extent of these new steps in fighting what’s been called an epidemic of heroin use will be revealed by early April, Myers said.

But residents can be assured local narcotics investigations involving both heroin and methamphetamine will be expanded far beyond state borders, Westfall said.

“The federal government has the ability to go outside the state, reach out further, and get to the root of the problem,” Westfall said.

While the latest batch of heroin discovered in Columbus was likely cut with the painkiller Fentanyl, that’s now a common practice that allows drug dealers to increase their profits, the DEA agent said.

Nevertheless, the DEA is aware that Bartholomew County has come into the spotlight after it was revealed that heroin overdoses involving this new batch resulted in two local deaths and at least three hospitalizations within a week’s time, Westfall said.

Most people are unaware that narcotics investigations are complex and time-consuming operations involving intelligence gathering, surveillance and making drug buys from often-paranoid minor drug suppliers, Myers said.

If the small-time dealer is arrested too soon, the large dealer is alerted and investigators fail at their effort to stop the flow of heroin from its source, the sheriff said.

Meanwhile, Myers objects to people suggesting that emergency responders stop administering Narcan, an antidote that briefly reverses the lethal effects of an opiate overdose.

“So when it’s someone you love and care for, are you going to tell us to let them die?” asked Myers, who feels the public needs to be more understanding about the origin of these addictions.

Three-quarters of heroin addicts used to take prescribed pain medication following an accident or injury — and many switched to heroin after state officials clamped down on physicians who over-prescribed the legal narcotics, Myers said.

“Please don’t give up on them, because these are not bad people,” Myers said. “If it was easy to stop, they would. But if they try without getting medical help, they will get deathly sick.”

For that reason, most addicts will strongly resist initial attempts by family and friends to intervene on their behalf — and that leads to an all-too-common and tragic scenario, Myers said.

Either out of frustration or a belief in tough love, a family will kick the heroin addict out onto the street, which too often prompts that person to start stealing, the sheriff said.

That’s how lives spiral out of control to the point where addicts finds themselves facing two choices: death or imprisonment, the sheriff said.

The DEA agent echoed Myers’ sentiment, adding the idea of withholding Narcan reflects an erroneous us-and-them attitude, Westfall said.

“It’s not race, poverty or anything like that,” Westfall said. “Heroin has no boundaries. Addiction falls across all socioeconomic lines. And there is no one cause.”

In addition, the sheriff cautioned local residents about believing statements on social media from those who claim to have inside knowledge of a drug investigation.

If a Facebook writer really has valuable information, Myers said it would be both smarter and safer for them to call police anonymously instead of making dangerous revelations with their name attached for everyone to see.

But the sheriff’s biggest criticism is of city, county and state leaders who refuse to fund residential, in-house substance abuse treatment centers for criminal offenders.

In fact, Indiana ranks among the states with the fewest drug treatment providers and the lowest public health spending, according to annual rankings from the Washington-based Trust for America’s Health.

Myers said he was especially concerned about funding problems facing the nationally lauded Women Recovering with a Purpose program.

Little to no efforts are being made to find local funding for the WRAP program, even though it’s been highly effective in preventing relapses into drug use and criminal behavior, Myers said.

“If we end up cutting a program that is shown to work, there is definitely something wrong here,” Myers said. “I’m putting the city and county on notice. It’s time to get the people the help they need.”

"Chasing the Dragon" documentary

To gain insight into a resurgent heroin problem, Bartholomew County Sheriff Matt Myers recommends viewing the documentary “Chasing the Dragon: The Life of an Opiate Addict.” The film, produced by the FBI and Drug Enforcement Agency, is a compilation of heart-wrenching first-person accounts by addicts and their family members about their experiences.

The 50-minute film, released in February, is available for viewing on YouTube. Both the documentary and transcripts can be found at fbi.gov

Author photo
Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.