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Heroin Epidemic

The U.S. Attorney’s Heroin and Opioid Task Force

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in 2013 identified and responded to an unprecedented health care and law enforcement crisis in Northern Ohio County. Heroin overdose deaths increased exponentially across the district in the past few years. Cuyahoga County, Ohio’s largest county, saw a 1000 percent increase in opioid deaths between 2007 and 2016, with more than 500 people fatally overdosing last year.

Faced with this emergency, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Ohio brought together a wide and diverse group of stakeholders, from law enforcement, to healthcare, to treatment, to policy makers in order to identify and implement comprehensive solutions.

The results – a summit, a community-wide Heroin and Opioid Action Plan that serves as the master plan for Northern Ohio’s attempt to solve the problem, and subsequent sustained Task Force efforts – tackles the epidemic from various facets.

This approach is now being replicated in U.S. Attorney’s Offices throughout the country.

As the nature of the threat has changed in our region – heroin deaths have plateaued, but fatal overdoses from fentanyl have tripled in the last few years – we continue to respond to the changing challenge. The U.S. Attorney’s Office brought together leaders of Northern Ohio’s top institutions, including doctors from major hospitals, federal, state and local law enforcement, addiction specialists, parents of children who died from heroin, teachers and people in recovery. The ambitious goal was to create a specific plan to stem the tide of death and destruction wrought by heroin and opioid addiction.

A list of those on the USAO’s Task Force speaks to both the breadth of the partnerships as well as the difficulty in assembling a multifaceted plan to meet the crisis: members include leaders from the Cleveland Clinic, the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Department, MetroHealth Medical Center, Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court, the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office, the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, Robby’s Voice, Orca House, WKYC Channel 3, the Cleveland Division of Police, the DEA, the FBI, the Ohio State Medical Board, the Ohio State Pharmacy Board, the Cuyahoga County Board of Health, the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner, the ADAMHS Board, University Hospitals, St. Vincent Charity Hospital and others. These groups all attend regular U.S. Attorney’s Task Force and subcommittee meetings.

The Task Force held a daylong summit on heroin at the Cleveland Clinic. The initial goal was to galvanize awareness of the scope of the crisis, craft solutions and to move beyond talk and into action. Over 700 people attended the widely publicized event, hosted by the U.S. Attorney and the CEO of the Cleveland Clinic.

Next, the group developed the Heroin and Opioid Community Action Plan. A more complete version of the plan is included below, but it addresses the heroin crisis from four perspectives: law enforcement, education and prevention, treatment and healthcare policy. The following are just some examples of success from the plan:

  • The Law Enforcement Subcommittee: New protocols were developed to treat fatal heroin overdoses as crime scenes, with investigators and prosecutors going to every scene to gather evidence. Nearly 30 federal “death specification” indictments filed, with defendants sentenced to between 13 and 30 years in prison. Dozens more manslaughter indictments filed in state court.

  • Healthcare Policy Subcommittee: Administrative and state legislative action expanded the availability of the Naloxone antidote to first responders and relatives of addicts.

  • Education and Prevention Subcommittee: Organized town hall meetings attended by more than 70,000 people and participated in three significant media campaigns.

  • Treatment Subcommittee: Increased physician use of a statewide prescription-reporting network, helping contribute to a decrease in opioids prescribed statewide. Additional funding identified and set aside to pay for treatment.

In 2016, the Justice Department bestowed its highest award onto the Task Force, honoring it with the Attorney General’s Award for Outstanding Contributions to Community Partnerships and Public Safety.

The Task Force continues to regularly meet, as do various subcommittees, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office updates the Action Plan as the Task Force directs. For more information, contact Tom Weldon at 216-622-3600.

Link to the Community Action Plan: The Heroin and Opioid Epidemic -- Our Community’s Action Plan

Updated June 27, 2023