It is said that a journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step.
On Tuesday night at the Switzerland County TEC Center, county residents and others took that first step.
In a call to action from the Switzerland County Commissioners and facilitated by the Community Foundation of Switzerland County, a public meeting was held to begin the process of looking at ways of combating drug abuse in the county and the region; both in the development of prevention programs and in getting those who are battling addiction the help that they need.
Commissioner Mark Lohide opened the meeting, telling the crowd of nearly 100 people that after hearing emergency reports on his county-issued radio that involved emergency workers having to administer Narcan – a drug used by emergency medical personnel to combat overdoses in victims – to the same overdose victim on two consecutive days; that the problem here in the county was bigger than he knew, and was growing every day.
“I know that I don’t know a lot about drugs; but I know a lot of folks out here who represent different types of agencies out here, do know,” Lohide said. “And that’s the reason why we came together here tonight, so we can probably, hopefully, begin to solve some of the problems, like what do we have out there for prevention? What do we have out there for treatment? What do we have out there for education?”
“We are facilitators,” Commissioner Josh South said. “There was a problem that was brought to the commissioners because we are a central point in the community, saying, ‘Help us facilitate an issue’. We’ve got knowledge experts….We’ve got people here from Scott County, and I think we all know the issues that they have there, it’s hit national news with the problems they have. We have those individuals here that I’m sure are available are available to talk to the group; but the main purpose of this meeting was basically, there’s a problem and we know there’s a problem. Everybody knows it now. Here in Switzerland County, typically when there’s problems, the community begins to pull together. We’re not going to find solutions, but what we can provide are the tools for people who are knowledge experts in those areas to come up with solutions.”
Following South, a series of individuals spoke to the group about options and opportunities as the group moves forward.
• Ryan Harrison, who is a resident of Switzerland County but who works as the District Supervisor for the State Parole Board, shared with the audience about his experiences in Scott County generally and the town of Austin specifically.
“I can tell you, what started in Scott County, was that everybody turned a blind eye to it, they didn’t pay attention to the problem that was growing before them,” Harrison said. “One of the gentlemen who worked for me was the chief of police in Austin, that’s really where the hub of the problem is. He went before the council hundreds of times and told them that the meth and the heroin problem is exploding here, and they turned a blind eye to it. So when I heard about this meeting, I was extremely excited that our county commissioners are paying attention. We’ve got to try and hit this hard and fast.”
Harrison told the audience just a bit about the extent of the problem around the Austin community; noting that someone can’t walk 20 feet without picking up a syringe off of the ground.
“When the parents go to their children’s softball and tee-ball games, they have to form a police line and walk the baseball field and the soccer fields to make sure there’s no syringes,” Harrison said. “And every single time they do that, they find syringes. It’s 100-percent guaranteed that they will find them.”
Harrison said that the Austin Police Department responds to over 3,000 calls a year about needles; and that number doesn’t include other agencies like the health department or county law enforcement. He said when he attended a meeting at the police headquarters two months ago, there were over 3,500 needles in containers there from the county’s needle exchange program.
“The police have to carry snake tongs – little grabbers – to pick needles up off of the street, because nobody paid attention,” Harrison said.
• Jeff Theetge, who is the Switzerland County Chief Probation Officer, said that his office is seeing a wide range of drugs.
“We are seeing a wide range,” Theetge said. “At the schools, marijuana is still very popular. That is a gateway drug. Everyone that I’ve ever interviewed, that’s where they started from, marijuana and alcohol, and it’s graduated to pain pills. Pain pills are still a major issue around here. Methadone, all of those are issues; and then heroin and meth. Me personally, I see a lot more meth than I do heroin.”
Theetge said that many of the issues that the probation department deals with are reactive, noting that his department really doesn’t have any programs to prevent abuse; but they can be a liaison to services that other agencies provide; and to hold those people accountable so that they do show up for those services. He noted that the Probation department in conjunction with the Sheriff’s Department will soon begin a GED program for those who are incarcerated, helping them get their education.
Theetge was followed by a series of other individuals representing other agencies and those who had a personal story to share. Those in attendance were asked to volunteer to serve in one of four areas: prevention; treatment; support; and enforcement; moving forward; and Lohide announced that the next meeting will be held on Tuesday, July 18th, at 5:30 p.m. at the TEC Center. South said that those wanting to share information, or who want more information, can email firstname.lastname@example.org.