The opioid crisis has resulted in thousands of overdoses and deaths across all parts of the country but there’s no doubt that some states are hurting worse than others. Currently, West Virginia leads the nation in opioid deaths per capita followed closely behind by Ohio. Officials in West Virginia may have been able to kill two birds with one stone by recently arresting an Akron, Ohio resident and two women in the Charleston, West Virginia area. West Virginia officials announced the three operated a drug trafficking pipeline that funneled drugs including opioids from the northern Ohio city to West Virginia’s capital.
Now West Virginia law enforcement agencies and other officials are keeping a keen eye on the Rubber City. “Akron is playing a larger and larger role in drug trafficking in West Virginia,” Michael Stuart, the U.S. attorney overseeing the southern district of West Virginia, told the Charleston Gazette-Mail. “It’s causing real problems for the state, but we’re not going to tolerate the situation any longer.”
According to state officials West Akron resident Eugene Calvin Wells, 44, has been indicted on several charges including conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine, heroin, and fentanyl. Fentanyl is a powerful opioid several times more powerful than heroin. Most opioid users are unaware fentanyl is in their drugs until toxicology reports after an overdose or death.
West Virginia wouldn’t have its eye on Akron if Wells was the only case. In 2017 Akron resident Bruce Lamar Griggs was sentenced to 18 years in federal prison for selling heroin mixed with the elephant tranquilizer carfentanil to several Huntington, West Virginia residents. The potent combination was responsible for more than two dozen Huntington overdoses in a single 2017 day.
It gets worse for the Rubber City. In 2017 William Hackney of Akron faced charges after opioids he sold on the streets ended up causing two West Virginia police officers to become sick after contact with the drug. Hackney’s brother was also arrested in West Virginia but on unrelated charges.
It was approximately around the time of the Hackney arrest that West Virginia law enforcement began to look more closely at Akron. “Everyone is aware there’s a group of individuals that are coming out of Akron dealing drugs,” said Huntington Police Chief Hank Dial. “They seem to be a more dangerous younger group than the dealers from Detroit.”
The investigation into Wells and the Akron link started in July of 2018. First undercover West Virginia DEA agents purchased methamphetamine from Wells to confirm their suspicions before raiding a Charleston home where Wells and West Virginia residents and now co-defendants Miranda Brandon and Sherry Gray were reported to live. Agents uncovered meth, heroin, and a substance believed to be fentanyl according to court records.
The same day Cleveland DEA officials executed another search warrant on Well’s Akron home where they found heroin and four firearms. According to Stuart, the amount of fentanyl uncovered during the raids could have resulted in nearly 300,000 overdoses.
“I grew up with three ‘R’s’ — reading, writing and the roadmap to Akron,” Stuart said. “Now it’s time for reading, writing and the roadmap back to Akron. For Eugene Wells and his trafficking buddies, Akron is no longer an option.”
Other Steps in Ohio
Officials in Ohio have taken several steps to combat the opioid crisis. Much of that fight takes places at the front lines of abuse including first responders, police, and hospital staff through innovative new programs. Many Ohio politicians like Jim Butler of Dayton’s District 41 believe the old ‘War on Drugs’ approach has ultimately failed and that new more direct approaches to addiction are what’s needed. “You could never guarantee that something’s going to work, but it at least it has a likelihood of working, whereas, what we have been doing over many decades now is not working,” said Butler.
Butler introduced a sweeping package of opioid reform bills that touch several different areas of the crisis. Butler knows one strategy is not enough which is why his four-point plan seeks to update and create new treatment facilities, address criminal justice reform to tackle supply lines, reduce the number of inmates cycling in and out of jail for drug offenses, and help communities create and fund outreach programs.
Ohio was also recently helped by $71 million from the federal government to direct towards the opioid crisis over the next two years. The money has already been set aside to fund community health centers, expand the use of FDA-approved medication to treat addiction and expand mental health services.
How the Federal Government is Fighting Opioids
The Trump Administration has made weakening the grip of opioids on Americans one of its top priorities. In 2016 Trump declared the opioid crisis a national public health emergency which helped make moves across both state and federal governments.
Congress has helped too with the passage of the 21st Century Cares Act. The Act directs several new resources and funds to a variety of healthcare organizations and programs across the country including $1 billion directed towards the opioid crisis. The money from the 21st Century Cures Act helped to create the Department of Health and Human Services’ State-Targeted Opioid Response (STOR) program. STOR directs millions across US states and territories, including the recent $71 million packages to Ohio.
As law enforcement and other officials continue their fight against opioid abuse they can rest easy knowing Ohio is trending in the right direction. Though opioid deaths had been steadily rising since the early 2000s, recent opioid-related hospital visits and overdoses unrelated to fentanyl have dropped to 2009 levels in the Buckeye State. Funding, community effort, and the work of law enforcement against criminals like Wells are making a positive impact.