Prosecutor targets heroin addiction, not addicts

Posted at 12:00 PM, May 27, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-27 12:00:04-04

BUTLER COUNTY, Ohio -- Michael T. Gmoser is the archetypal prosecutor, tenacious and determined. 

He readily admits to both traits and adds a caveat: “I hate to lose.” 

His record as the Butler County prosecutor backs him up. He wins more than 90 percent of his cases. But now Gmoser is fighting an especially difficult case. 

His opponent is the heroin epidemic, and he is pulling no punches as he goes after not the addicts but the addiction itself. 

“Heroin is an equal opportunity killer. All are affected from the very poor to the very rich. To defeat it, we must attack it like we did the scourge of the polio epidemic,” said Gmoser, a conservative Republican who has been in his position since 2011. 

He shared “Butler County’s Response to the Opiate Epidemic, a Call to Action” with WCPO. The 28-page report presents these facts: Drug overdose deaths, primarily involving heroin, increased from 92 in 2012 to 189 in 2015, a 105 percent increase. The Butler County Coroner’s Office said that last year, drug overdose cases exceeded the number of natural death cases. 

Gmoser is one of 88 prosecutors in Ohio taking a stand because heroin has seeped into every neighborhood. He started his career as a prosecutor, left to be a trial lawyer for 37 years, then returned to the prosecutor’s office. He has served as the chief trial counsel and was assistant prosecuting attorney for eight years before being elected to his current position. He served on the Bar Association Certified Ethics and Grievance Committee for 36 years and was co-chair for eight years. 

In Gmoser’s office is a stack of papers balanced against a standing ruler. Each page represents two or three cases he has presented to the grand jury, and the stack is more than 2 feet tall.

“Eighty-five percent of every case I handle has some drug element to it, whether it’s marijuana, cocaine, heroin, pills or methamphetamine,” said Gmoser. “Either it’s a person on drugs committing a crime or it’s a robbery involving a young man who won’t let someone into his house to get his drug money or a shooting in a car over drugs.” 

Gmoser said heroin is the most devastating drug out there. 

“Heroin is king. It’s big business,” he said. 

Heroin use has become epidemic in recent years in the county, the state and across the country because it is cheap, potent and highly available. Painkillers like OxyContin and Vicodin are harder to obtain because they are expensive and law enforcement efforts to crack down on prescription abuse have worked. 

To find out about heroin, Gmoser met with several addicts to hear their stories, learning about their struggle with addiction, the pain they sought to escape from and how their lives spiraled downward. Several said they had contracted hepatitis and HIV, most likely from using dirty needles. They lost jobs, their families were broken and their lives were destroyed. 

A teetotaler, he opposes the use of intoxicants. 

“There should not be any shortcuts to happiness. Now there are people who are in true exacerbating pain, who need the medication. I understand that,” said Gmoser, whose wife, Olga, died after a long, painful battle with cancer. 

“I often say, ‘Life is a road trip. Heroin only leads to a dead end.’ ” 

Heroin cases are difficult for many reasons for a prosecutor, he said. 

“I am not a big proponent of prosecuting the addicts. I know that they have committed a crime when they obtained the heroin. They are committing a crime when they have it in their system, when they buy it or when they sell it, but once they are addicted, they are a victim of their own bad choices,” Gmoser said. 

“And once they become victims, we have to show them compassion because we do not live in a disposable society.” 

Heroin is often mixed with fentanyl, a synthetic and short-acting analgesic up to 50 times more potent than morphine. In 2014, Butler County saw 49 fentanyl-related overdose deaths. Only three other Ohio counties recorded a greater number that year. At the county jail, 80 percent of inmates have histories of substance abuse, and 30 percent experience heroin withdrawal symptoms. 

Gmoser said prosecuting addicts who have not committed a crime apart from their addiction is a death sentence not just for them “but it affects their families, their children, their wives and their employers.” 

But if they do commit a robbery, murder, rape or burglary, he will prosecute them. 

“Their addiction is not going to be an excuse. It may mean something to the judge, but it it’s not going to mean anything to me as a prosecutor,” he said. 

Gmoser has a plan to combat heroin, which he said “is not inexpensive.” His five-point program, developed with related experts, addresses law enforcement, prosecution legislation, education and medical treatment. 

While he wants to continue the arrests as a deterrent, he also wants to increase availability of treatment, which includes making detoxification beds available for indigent or low-income people, as well as recovery housing. 

He also wants an education campaign via media, schools and community forums to talk about the misuse of opiates and alcohol. 

“We need to educate children starting from an early age, and it has to be an everyday thing, almost like the 'Pledge of Allegiance,'” Gmoser said.

Communities and law enforcement have to collaborate to reduce supply and stop the spread of infectious diseases through dirty needles, he said. 

Heroin can be bought for $10 to $20 per tenth of a gram, with patients at local treatment centers reporting they use at least a gram daily. 

The war on heroin will be a long one, Gmoser said. 

“I don’t think I am going to live long enough to see this (heroin epidemic) end,” he said. 

And Gmoser said the epidemic will only be conquered in one way: “It’s going to take a national united effort. This problem is in every state.”