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Criminal Justice Update

New fronts established in battle against opiates


By R. Steven Graves

As statewide efforts to battle the prescription drug abuse epidemic begin to show results, the Ohio Attorney General’s Office and its partners are seeing a rise in the prevalence of heroin, prompting a broader focus to fight opiates in general.

Assistant Attorney General Aaron Haslam, who is leading the office’s work to stem the opiate problem, said increased heroin trafficking followed on the heels of a crackdown on prescription drug abuse. Like heroin, painkillers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone are opiates.

Haslam said a new state law strengthening the licensing of pain management clinics already is having an effect. The law, which took effect May 20, also enhances the computerized Ohio Automated Rx Review System to help identify extensive prescription drug use.

“The regulations have helped cut off a lot of the supply. The number of pain clinics has dropped significantly. Scioto County, which had 12 pain clinics, now has just one,” Haslam said. “But as the supply of prescription drugs has gone down, we’ve seen a boom in heroin.

“A lot of the heroin that we’re seeing is coming out of Mexico and South America, and the cartels bringing it in are very organized,” he added. “Unlike how prescription drugs are illegally distributed, what we see with heroin is that it’s coming in to hub cities such as Columbus and Cincinnati, and addicts are traveling to get it.”

Haslam said the Attorney General’s Office is working closely with the Governor’s Office, the state medical and pharmacy boards, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and law enforcement to coordinate efforts on the overall opiate problem.

For example, the Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI), Special Prosecutions Unit, and Ohio Organized Crime Investigations Commission are coordinating with local, state, and federal agencies on 17 investigations involving opiates. Haslam has been designated as a special assistant U.S. attorney to prosecute opiate cases.

In other developments:

  • The Attorney General’s Office scheduled a multistate law enforcement summit on prescription drug abuse at this year’s Law Enforcement Conference.
  • The Ohio Police Officer Training Academy offers free trainings on prescription drug diversion throughout the state and online through eOPOTA.
  • The Attorney General’s Office has created an internal working group and external advisory council on prescription drug abuse. The latter includes peace officers, judges, educators, health care experts, and prevention and poison control professionals.
  • Ohio is working with other states to share prescription drug monitoring information. Pilot projects are in place with Kentucky and Indiana. As many as 30 states may participate by 2012.

In addition to addressing the opiate problem, the Attorney General’s Office worked to include language on analog drugs and so-called bath salts in a new law that took effect July 15. Originally drafted to ban synthetic cannabinoids, the law was broadened to list derivatives of cathinone, the active ingredient in bath salts, and analog drugs as Schedule I controlled substances.

Former BCI forensic chemist Erin Reed, now an assistant attorney general, has researched analog drugs and advocated action to restrict them.

“The law was needed,” she said, “to prosecute underground chemists who were avoiding prosecution simply by slightly altering the chemical structure of controlled substances.”