The chief justice of Ohio's supreme court helped bring together experts and officials from nine states, including Indiana, in a regional judicial summit on the opioid drug epidemic, even as an overdose surge sweeping nearby streets showed dramatically the scope of the problem.
Before the three-day summit began Wednesday, Cincinnati first responders were chasing what turned out to be some 80 overdosing cases over a two-day period beginning Tuesday. On Thursday, the state Department of Health reported that accidental drug overdoses killed 3,050 people in Ohio in 2015, averaging eight deaths a day in a record toll fueled by the powerful painkiller fentanyl. In 2014, the total was 2,531. That's an increase of 20.5 percent.
Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor hopes the summit leads to ongoing collaboration across borders and jurisdictions. The states involved were Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.
"You wonder ... It's depressing," she said of overdose surges, such as in Cincinnati and earlier this summer, in Akron, where she had been a county prosecutor. "And it's a reflection: What don't they get about it? Why does this continue to go on?"
O'Connor discussed in an interview the impacts of heroin and painkiller drug abuse.
ON HOW THE EPIDEMIC AFFECTS THE JUDICIAL SYSTEM
"It really is enormous ... It is a burden on courts, it truly is, but it is a burden on our treatment facilities as well.
"When we talk about the addict being involved in the criminal justice system, that's one system. They may also been involved in the juvenile system, because they're having their children taken away from them because of their drug addiction. There are people involved in the juvenile system because they are neglecting their children, but haven't been caught yet in a criminal case.
"This is everybody's problem. This isn't just the addicts and the justice system and the child welfare."
ON PUBLIC PERCEPTIONS
"One of the biggest problems I see in public awareness is that the public is not sympathetic ...
"I'll bet you that there's more than a couple of people looking at the morning headlines (about Cincinnati overdoses) or listening to them and saying 'Why bother?" So where's the public engagement in this problem?
"Now just because the public isn't wrapping their arms around it doesn't mean the people who are dealing with it day in and day out aren't going to do what they need to do. But the public is critical about the amount of funding it takes to deal with this problem."
ON DRUG COURTS THAT FOCUS ON REHABILITATING USERS
"We have 90-some drug courts in the state of Ohio ... they're run by judges who are caring and involved and they see the fact of the involvement of the heroin and the other illegal substances ... They're up to capacity, if not over capacity, with their resources, and I think that's an issue with our state.
"The bulk of these abusers, these addicts, people who are drug-involved, they need the treatment ... we need to be up to capacity, increase our capacity, to be able to deal with it."
ON COURT PROGRAMS SUCH AS OFFERING OPIATE-BLOCKING SHOTS
"This has to be data-driven decision-making. It takes pilot programs and then it takes those programs expanded to other jurisdictions to get good solid data.
"The Vivitrol, and the other medically assisted treatments that are out there; I think they already have gotten the stamp of approval in many respects, but that's only half the battle. The other half of the battle is to convince the judges and policymakers that that's a great alternative, that if somebody is in the system, that is a way we can help them get better.
"It used to be arrest, incarcerate, and then when they're done with their time, put 'em back out on the street. There was no treatment, there was no recognition that this is a disease.
"It would be like if cancer was a criminal activity. You arrest them ... you've got cancer, you do your time, get out, and gee, you still have cancer."