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Guest Editorial: Law Clerk Sees Region's Heroin Problem Up Close in Court

“Heroin must be so good.” 
That’s what I leaned in and told the Commonwealth’s Attorney during court as she scribbled her notes on the docket. It was my first day in Boone Circuit Court and that day – like every Wednesday in Burlington – attorneys and defendants gathered to partake in the criminal docket. One by one, cases are called, defendants stand in front of the podium to address the court and their past sins. I sat and listened to all the cases being called and the charges, sometimes alleged and sometimes admitted, against them: possession (heroin), trafficking (heroin), theft by unlawful taking (for heroin), forged checks (for heroin), possession, possession, burglary (for heroin).
Week after week, lawyers return to the courtroom to broker in human wreckage. Same charges. Different defendants.
I’ve only been working at the office for a year and a half, much less than many of the seasoned attorneys in our office. Such a short stint definitely has its disadvantages. I’m not as knowledgeable about the law as others in the office; I don’t have the experience. It does have its upside, though. Since beginning work, my eyes have been, and continue to be, wide open. Everything that occurs in the courtroom, while it may seem mundane or routine to those who have toiled in it for years, is new to me and, at times, it grabs me. It becomes more apparent that our community has a problem when you see a mother bring her newborn to court and set him in his rocker beside the podium while she enters a plea of guilty to felony charges. Children barely old enough to vote get ushered into court to receive their sentencing and then ushered back out. Sometimes mom and dad are in the courtroom to catch a fleeting glance of their baby boy. Other times, there is nobody. 
And reasonable minds could differ on which situation is sadder. 
You wouldn’t even need to pick up a newspaper to learn that the Northern Kentucky area is in the throes of a heroin epidemic. Just go to the local high school varsity game and you can find parents whose lives have been marred by this drug. 
Heroin-related overdoses in a local hospital nearly doubled from 2011 to 2012. The following year, 2013, they continued to increase and there is no sign these numbers will decline in 2014. 
It’s not extremely difficult to play Monday morning quarterback and explainhow we got into this mess. Essentially, methamphetamine and prescription pills were the carriages that brought us into this dilemma. The crackdown on access to ingredients for meth, mainly pseudoephedrine, has discouraged users from this buzz while steering them towards another. People who have become addicted to prescription pills have seen its supply cut drastically with new laws that shut down pill mills. As a result of these shutdowns, prices increased so users were left looking for a better alternative. In the end, both user groups have flocked to this drug that is a fraction the cost and provides an unparalleled high.
It’s a high so good, people do anything to get at it again. And again. And again. An addict once described it by saying, “Imagine I came across this table and grabbed your throat – and I began choking you. Imagine what you’d do to get that next gasp of air. Think how badly you’d want it. That’s how it feels for me to get that next hit, that next high.” 
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Joe Cunningham is the author of this post
They do just about anything. They don’t care who they steal from and the cycle becomes pitiful after a while. They hawk their mother’s jewelry at the local pawnshop for two hits. Sometimes mom notices and goes to buy it back from the pawnshop, asking the owner not to report it because they are “working through his issues.” Other times she doesn’t notice and valuable items under her roof continue to grow legs and walk themselves to the nearest pawn shop. All of this to feed the addiction. Eventually, though, they find themselves on that criminal docket sheet being processed with all others. By then, it’s normally too late for a solution.
The solution to this epidemic - our epidemic - is not an easy one. I don’t have it. And if you’re reading this searching for it, you’re in good company; but don’t expect to find it here. Our small enclave’s drug problem is simply a reflection of our nation’s. And our country’s drug problem is huge. Just last year, we spent $109 billion on illegal marijuana, cocaine, meth, and heroin. That’s more than we spent on electronics and appliances combined. Our problem is also complex. It’s so involved and entwined with other factors, countries, and people. 
We’ve been plagued with addictions since birth. To truly comprehend our country’s drug problem and know the solution would be to reach a level of understanding of astronomical proportions. To have the answer to this riddle – our drug problem - would place you above mere mortals. It’d be the equivalent of shaking hands with God himself. 
But just because I don’t know what the solution is doesn’t mean I don’t know what the solution isn’t. I know of two: For starters, it’s not lengthy jail sentences. We can’t arrest our way out of this. The best thing jail provides is time for addicts to dry out. It’s a quasi purgatory until they can get into a longer-term drug treatment program. Don’t get me wrong – we have to keep arresting users, especially dealers, those who continue to break the law. I’m simply saying it’s not a long-term answer to our dilemma. For one, we can’t sustain the financial load of housing and processing all drug users. It further strains an already strained correctional system. Our country’s tab for the correctional system is $80 billion – that’s about $260 per resident per year. On top of that, it clogs up the court system, zapping the energy from our officials and leaving less time to those who are more deserving of these scarce resources. 
To clarify an unfounded myth, not everyone who is busted with heroin does time. Our legal system here is a lenient one and users get chance after chance after chance to rectify their behavior, to right their wrongs before they find themselves in a cage. We hold their hand and walk them through each step of a very forgiving and long process, from pre-trial diversion to probation to drug treatment and so on. 
And only when all options have been exhausted and all hope abandoned, then and only then, is when a full sentence is imposed. 
But here’s another one that doesn’t help our epidemic: hiding from it. Today in our society, we tend to hide anything in our life that is short of perfection. If it doesn’t meet the standards set by popular reality TV shows, we shun it from conversation. If it doesn’t get us ‘likes’ on Instagram or Facebook, we hide it, we don’t share it. Hell, we don’t even post it. Unfortunately, this includes drug use and we end up suffering in silence. Neighbors can have artificial conversation about the weather when the thing they share most in common – what they will never discuss – is their kids’ addictions. To openly admit addiction is perceived as an automatic condemnation. And it shouldn’t be this way. 
Recently, this has begun to change. Thank God! As Northern Kentucky begins to shine light into the darkest crevasses of our heroin addiction, more is illuminated. More people enter the conversation. And with more minds come more ideas on how a proper battle may be waged against this enemy. With more bodies come more resources. All the necessary and proper tools become available at our disposal once a community is united with a common mission. Bringing this issue to the front page so it is viewed as a problem affecting all classes is a good start. 
Taking ownership of our addiction and spotlighting these issues is a step in the right direction. 
After all, admitting we have a problem is the first step to recovery.
Written by Joe Cunningham, J.D.