A Safe Station For Addicts in Whitehall Ohio

A couple weeks ago I was in the Midwest, speaking about Dreamland.

I decided to add a couple days to the trip to spend more time in places where I was visiting than I’ve done in the past.

First stop was Whitehall, a town of about 18,000, next to the airport in Columbus, Ohio.

I got there a little early because I wanted to see a new idea the town had instituted.

Whitehall Fire Department has established its firehouse as a Safe Station – meaning that addicts can come by, no questions asked, and will be shuttled to treatment. This has been tried by police departments elsewhere, but in Whitehall they decided on the fire department, believing that most folks would be more at ease there than showing up to talk to police.

The idea had been in place about six weeks and 54 people had made use of it. Whitehall being part of the Columbus metro area, the vast majority of Safe Station drop-ins are not from the town.

One fellow who dropped by was Matt, who grew up in a fairly difficult family but in a middle-class town nearby. He played football, baseball, basketball in high school. In his town, sports were it, he said. Young men got their identity from their participation, or stardom, in sports.

Readers of Dreamland may feel where this is going.

An athletic shoulder injury led Matt to prescription pain pills – Vicodin 5mg for a year then to OxyContin 80 mg. He began selling the pills and buying more pills from his stepfather, who had a prescription, and selling those.

Many high school athletes in his town got addicted to pain pills. “The [football] coach was real big on making sure you were able to play – especially his star athletes. Out of 22 guys that started, seven or eight would have to pop a couple [Vicodins] or [Percocet 5mg] just to get through the game. Once you get involved in it, especially when you start, sitting out half the season to heal was not an option.”

Within a couple years of graduation, he was using heroin. Any recovery was hampered by the fact that he found work in the moving business. “In the moving business everybody uses – everybody does some type of drug,” he said.

So after a good decade using dope full-time, Matt walked into the Whitehall Fire Department. We took him to a new treatment center run by Maryhaven Addiction Stabilization Center (MASC). Maryhaven is a large treatment center in Columbus. MASC was its response to the big numbers of people who were being revived from overdose every day through the expanded use of naloxone, the opiate antidote, in the Columbus area. Many were being revived, but there was no place to send them.

Maryhaven remodeled an old south side hospital and six months ago opened MASC, which takes naloxone revivals from hospitals, as well as walk-ins … as well as now folks who show up at Whitehall’s Safe Station firehouse. Addicts detox for a week or so. Many transition to residential beds for a while before being connected with sober-living houses in the community.

It’s funded by a county addiction agency and private donations. All this is investment that, as a country, we ought to have made years ago. It’s happening now, though still probably not to the degree necessary.

Yet all of this is part of an effervescent feeling of change and innovation that I see in many parts of this country in response to our epidemic of opiate addiction. It’s communities daring to try new things – ideas that might not have had political support three years ago. I’m also encouraged that people in many of these places aren’t discouraged if they’re not somehow saving the world. They don’t seem to lose heart, but instead continue tinkering with these ideas.

Amid all the depressing news, the fatalism and inertia that dope addiction engenders, it’s exhilarating to see towns like Whitehall trying small things like this.

I’m always aware, too, of how daunting all this is. So much must be balanced and harmonized for one addict to kick dope, and even then relapse is always a possibility.

Will MASC or Whitehall, Ohio’s Safe Station solve the problem? I doubt it. No one thing will solve this debacle. We have to get away from thinking there’s a magic bullet answer to our most complex problems.

Nevertheless, I believe the mere fact of acting, of doing something, of working with people together in a community – that alone is a radical thing when the enemy is dope and, beyond that, inertia, negativity, and fatalism.

Next stop, Louisville — where I visited the jail.

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