Representatives of the Owensboro Police Department and Daviess County Sheriff’s Office said Wednesday that social isolation and a variety of other factors during the pandemic have led to a spike in drug use across the area.
During a meeting hosted by Judge-Executive Al Mattingly, he asked DCSO Sheriff Keith Cain and Commander of OPD’s Field Service Division Major J.D. Winkler a number of questions related to local drug use, the increased number of overdoses in recent months, and whether drug addicts deserved to go to jail.
Winkler said the pandemic had created opportunities for some individuals to come into the area with illicit drugs.
“And that’s the stuff that led to the drug bust a couple months ago,” Winkler said, noting a historic bust in Owensboro. “When it comes to the social isolations that we’re facing now… you don’t have those family encounters, the opportunities for them to notice things or intervene to slow that down. That’s become a problem magnified during COVID.”
With drugs like methamphetamine, heroin and fake prescription opioid pills laced with fentanyl causing overdoses to escalate, Winkler said one of the biggest misconceptions facing the community was the notion that drug addiction only affected a couple of areas across the city.
“It absolutely touches every portion of this community,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what neighborhood you live in, your socioeconomic status, your education or occupation — it touches all of us. We all have someone close to us battling addiction.”
Cain said DCSO was continuing to see meth used more frequently than other drugs, saying his staff was working diligently with OPD and the Kentucky State Police to combat the ongoing problem.
However, Cain also said the pandemic had affected resources and staffing for the sheriff’s office, and that economic and mental health issues faced by the community had led to more serious drug-trafficking issues as well.
“Some people who’ve lost jobs have transitioned to low-level drug trafficking,” he said. “Our deputies in 2019 filled out 109 crisis reports. That number jumped to 139 during the pandemic in 2020. And the suicide rate increased, unfortunately, in 2020. We worked 20 of those in 2020.”
Winkler said he’d seen a definite uptick in overdoses over the last eight or nine months, though the method by which people were overdosing had changed in recent years.
“When I worked narcotics … theft of medication was an issue. Those numbers dropped significantly over the last eight or nine months for us,” he said. “What took their place was when the fake percocet 30s started showing up. They started growing and we knew they contained fentanyl.”
Winkler added that the demand for fake prescription opioids laced with fentanyl has increased, and people have begun seeking them out — even intentionally overdosing on them.
“There was a black market that came around for narcan, knowing they were going to overdose and could be administered narcan by their friends or whoever was around,” he said. “I think those fake pills filled in the gap to reduce the number of pills being stolen. We have put a pretty good dent in that. We got up front on it, and we were specifically targeting those pills from the get-go as that was evolving.”
Cain said the “vast majority” of arrests made by DCSO involved higher-level individuals on the drug-trafficking spectrum. He said they routinely cite those individuals trafficking in marijuana in minute or smaller quantities rather than incarcerating them.
Winkler said OPD also recognized that addicts often don’t need incarceration, but they have to be careful on who is put in jail and who goes to rehab.
“My opinion is, drug addicts don’t need to be incarcerated,” Winkler said. “… it’s kind of a failure of society to combat that underlying addiction. We have to be careful to not shift so far that we’re putting people who are addicted to money and power in rehab with these addicts, because you’re creating more opportunities for these dealers to target these addicts.”