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December 7, 2004 - The News-Journal (OH)

Abusers Are Not Who You Think

Drug Culture Goes Across All Social And Economic Groups

By Linda Martz, News Journal

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

MANSFIELD -- The typical person dying from a drug overdose in Richland County defies stereotype.

He or she was white, not African-American -- and didn't live in the inner city.

"The way it has been portrayed is that it's mostly the socioeconomic underprivileged that are out in the drug world," said Geron Tate, executive director of the Urban Minority Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Outreach Program. But "it's just not the working poor or just the middle class. The drug culture goes across all social and economic groups," he said.

Mansfield attorney Stephen Cockley knows of at least half a dozen overdoses or near-overdoses involving heroin, between Mansfield and Lexington, in locations that include Walnut Hills and Gorman Nature Center.

"That stuff is so addictive," he said.

Drug of Choice

Young people doing heroin typically aren't from low-income families, he said.

"This is like a drug of choice for the more affluent," Cockley said. "It's not a cheap drug.

"When you get into upper middle class areas, the parents are in denial and don't seem to recognize that their children are on heroin," he said. They'd detect signs if they knew to look, he believes. "When somebody's high on heroin, they're hardly coherent."

At least 20 people were confirmed as dying from drug-related causes in Richland County during 2003 or the first half of 2004, based on death certificates, toxicology reports and police reports.

Only two deaths involved people who lived within the City of Mansfield and north of Park Avenue West (in the city's lowest-income wards). But nine lived in the city's southern wards.

Only one or two of those confirmed as dying of drug-related causes lived in the downtown area.

Only two were black.

Twelve of the confirmed deaths involved men, and eight involved women. (Four others listed on the health department's initial list of possible-drug related deaths were women. Because of lack of autopsies or no police investigation, it could not be clearly determined whether some of those deaths were drug-related).

Several of the women who died of drug-related causes overdosed on addictive prescription drugs. But some had harder drugs in their system as well.

METRICH Drug Task Force Operations Supervisor Michael Bammann said users and dealers defy stereotype.

"When we buy in our area, generally we're seeing everyone we buy it from is also an abuser," he said. "It's your middle class and upper-middle class. It's not the stereotypical drug addicts they're portraying in movies or on TV."

More Heroin Usage

Lynne Spencer, director for Crossroads Center for Change, said she's seen a major increase in the number of heroin users coming in for treatment. But "I have yet to have an African-American male come in for heroin or opiate addiction, for the last two years," she said.

Five or 10 years ago, heroin users tended to be "an older population," Spencer said.

"Today, it's not that population, but often kids in their 20s, sometimes even their teens, who have some money and often come from more well-to-do areas like Lexington," she said. "I'm seeing white males, most of which are 26 and under."

It doesn't take long for young people living in Lexington to drive to streets in Columbus where they know they can access hard drugs, Spencer said. "Columbus is right there. You just gotta hop on 71."

Heroin, especially, still carries the stereotype of living on skid row and eating out of garbage cans, she said. "I don't think any parent ever thinks their child will ever be addicted to any drug."

Many communities across Ohio have seen dramatic surges in heroin use among young people living in suburban areas, said Sandy Starr of the Ohio Department of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services. "Now, because the price has dropped, we're seeing that flow into younger user groups we would not have thought."

Most of the 20 confirmed deaths involved more than one drug -- sometimes a mix of addictive prescription drugs and outright illegal drugs.

"The No. 1 addiction for women is prescription pills," Spencer said. That's because many start out using them legally, taking pills doctors prescribe for medical reasons, she said.

But painkillers such as methadone can be highly addictive, Spencer said. If a person remains on them long without close monitoring by a physician, tolerance builds up and "then you take more," Spencer said. "It doesn't take real long."

Few Minorities

Of the 20 confirmed drug-related deaths, only 10 percent involved African-Americans. That's less than might be expected for Richland County's overall black population at 11.5 percent, or the city of Mansfield's black population, at 19.6 percent, Tate said.

The UMADOAP director believes people perceive much heavier drug abuse among African-Americans than what actually exists, because of quirks in the way data is collected.

Statistics on drug abuse tend to be pulled from Medicaid records, which give a picture of lower-income groups receiving public-funded drug addiction treatment. But private insurance companies' records, showing a more suburban clientele, aren't as public or easily accessed, Tate said.

Perceptions also may be skewed because school districts handle drug problems differently, Tate believes.

Tate believes the Mansfield City Schools exercises "tough" anti-drug policies by quickly calling police into the schools, where some other districts contact parents, hoping they will handle the situation.

School employees who work in districts the public inaccurately perceives as pretty may have a vested interest in not calling police - -- since they know that could negatively affect public opinion, Tate said. "It's like we think 'It can't happen here.' "

Black men make up less than 10 percent of Ohio's population, but "are over 50 percent of the prison population," Tate said. Many black men were convicted on drug-related charges, he said. "There is a lot of money in the drug trade," he added.

Most of the fatal overdoses that occurred in the City of Mansfield occurred on the city's south side, and only one death was in the downtown area.

But Mansfield Police Department records showed much more frequent police activity, for some categories of drug-related incident reports, in neighborhoods closest to downtown.

The number of incidents involving possession of drugs, possession of drug equipment, and miscellaneous drug-related drug calls all tended to be far higher in precincts closest to the city's center.

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