'It's right under our faces': Why opioid abuse overshadows politics in East Liverpool, Ohio

While the U.S. election is certainly a topic of conversation among the 13,000 residents of East Liverpool, Ohio, it comes second to the opioid overdose crisis. Speak to people in this town and most will say they know someone who has been affected by the problem.

Fentanyl-related unintentional drug overdose deaths more than doubled across state from 2014 to 2015

Nancy Hall of East Liverpool, Ohio, says drug abuse is a huge crisis in her town and that dealers can be found throughout the city, including across from her house. (Mark Gollom/CBC)

On the outskirts of the downtown core in East Liverpool, Ohio, four young men and a woman sit idly in a back alley lined with weathered homes. It's an area that some locals suggest is a popular spot to score heroin. 

"Honey, you're in the wrong neighbourhood," one young woman dressed in a hoodie and tights tells the CBC. 

While this might be an area for addicts looking for a fix, the sad reality is that the drugs plaguing this small town are sold anywhere.

"Right across the street," homeowner Nancy Hall said as she nodded to one of the houses opposite her in the tree-lined neighbourhood. 

"They come here in droves. [Buyers] come in cars, go up to the door, they go in the house for 15 minutes, do their thing and leave.

"It's right under our faces," said Hall, who has lived in the area for 35 years. "We can't even sit on this porch now for fear. Would they think that we would be calling the law on them?"

A photo taken on Sept. 7, 2016, and released by the East Liverpool Police Department shows a young child sitting in a vehicle behind his grandmother, Rhonda Pasek and her boyfriend, James Acord, both of whom are unconscious from a drug overdose. (East Liverpool Police Department/Associated Press)

This small eastern Ohio town was recently put on the map by a stark and startling picture that went viral across the United States. It showed two adults passed out and slumped over in the front seat of an SUV from an apparent opioid overdose while a four-year-old boy sat in the back seat, staring straight ahead. 

Police and city officials had made the unconventional and controversial choice to release the image, hoping it would attract attention to the dire drug problems the town faces. 

East Liverpool is in Columbiana County, which has voted Republican over the past several elections. While the campaign certainly is a topic of conversation among the 11,000 residents here, it is somewhat overshadowed when news quickly spreads that yet another person has overdosed.

Cleaning off the counter at the local L&B Donut and Coffee Shop, Joann Williams says the morning chatter is roughly 60 per cent about the drug problem.

Still, there are plenty of people who will weigh in on the presidential contest between Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Trump fans

"Everybody here is a Trump fan," she says. "Except for one Democrat that comes in here. She said something about Clinton the other day and a whole string of guys went in on her.

"That's America, that's what it's all about," she said.

But Williams has also been affected by the drug issues in the town, saying that one of her own family members had to hit "rock bottom" before owning up to the problem.

"Everybody around here knows somebody who's on it,"  she said.

"I had one [23-year-old] girl living with me prior to her OD'ding. She's dead," another woman who did not want to be identified said as she was walking through town. "I know a couple kids who have lost their parents, being raised by other people."

She said she also knows the woman and the four-year-old in that infamous and controversial picture.

"I was disgusted," she said.

A number of downtown shops have closed in East Liverpool. (Mark Gollom/CBC)

East Liverpool is certainly a depressed area that has seen better days. It was once a thriving community with a population of slightly more than 25,000 nearly 50 years ago and was referred to as the pottery capital of the world.

But most of those factories and brickyards have closed. Some of the homes have seen better days and the downtown core is eerily quiet, with vacant storefronts lining the streets. 

That's why Michelle Dellapenna, owner of a comic book and collectible shop, says she supports Trump and his plans to bring back jobs to the U.S. 

"There's no jobs in the area. You used to be able to graduate high school and go to the pottery and get a job, [or go to] the brickyard," said Dellapenna, who has Trump signs plastered on her window. "Now there's nothing here for these people."

It's difficult to say how much the employment situation has fuelled the drug situation. The problem is statewide and East Liverpool is just one of a number of communities facing this issue. 

Overdose deaths doubled

Unintentional drug overdoses caused the deaths of 3,050 Ohio residents in 2015, the highest number on record, and a 20 per cent increase from the year before, according to the Ohio Department of Health.

Heroin was the leading cause of all opioid deaths, followed by fentanyl. And fentanyl-related unintentional drug overdose deaths in Ohio have more than doubled, rising from 503 in 2014 to 1,155 in 2015.

"Once again, somebody just overdosed, out here in the parking lot," said longtime resident Ray Trevelline, owner of the Hot Dog Shoppe, pointing to the spot where a man was found, slumped in his car.

"And we had one fairly recently in the restroom, a woman."

Both survived, he said, revived by the emergency opiate antidote Narcan, a nasal spray that is becoming more frequently used.

Longtime East Liverpool resident Ray Trevelline says a man recently overdosed in the parking lot of his restaurant. Weeks earlier, a woman overdosed in his restroom. (Mark Gollom/CBC)

"When I first started, we used Narcan maybe two, three times a month. Now we use it two three times a shift sometimes," said one local paramedic who didn't want to be identified.

Recently, all three of the town's ambulances were tied up responding to seven overdoses in an eight-hour shift, said East Liverpool police Chief John Lane. 

Ambulances were all tied up recently responding to seven overdose calls in an eight-hour shift in East Liverpool. (Mark Gollom/CBC)

That's why Lane, who was hesitant at first about releasing that controversial image, is now unapologetic.

"It raised awareness," he said. "People don't realize how this stuff is tearing families apart. It's destroying families."

"When the addict hears somebody OD'd, that's the drug they want," he said. "That's 'some good stuff.' So they go and buy it from that guy."

Both Lane and Brian Allen, the city's director of public service and safety, say state cutbacks that have produced a $2-billion budget surplus — also known as Ohio Gov. John Kasich's rainy day fund — have also constrained their resources.

"He created a rainy day fund with the money he took from us. And we're saying to him it's storming now in East Liverpool," said Allen.

Police Chief John Lane, left, and Brian Allen, the city's director of public service and safety, say they need more funding and resources to tackle the town's drug problem. (Mark Gollom/CBC)

Both say the release of that picture did instigate some action, as Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine agreed to meet with local officials about the drug issue. 

But what is needed, says Allen, is money for anti-drug education in schools, funding for more inpatient treatment centres and more officers.

"With only 17 police officers on the streets, covering 11,000 people 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, that doesn't leave you much room for error."

Weathered homes line the streets of East Liverpool. (Mark Gollom/CBC)


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.