Opioid community conversations begin tonight

Today a group of local media that includes the Tribune Chronicle continues our effort to find solutions to help combat — or at least slow — the heroin and opioid crisis sweeping through our area, our state and our nation.

Our journey of solutions-oriented journalism has included coverage of this crisis that has taken more than 700 lives in Trumbull and Mahoning counties since 2010. Stories have focused on mind-boggling numbers of overdoses, revivals and deaths.

It has analyzed the effects on families, local law enforcement and first responders. It has included stories that should alarm you because of skyrocketing public health expenditures and because it is affecting children, abandoned by parents unable to care for them because of their addiction, because of incarceration or because they are dead. On the front page of today’s newspaper, you’ll read about grandparents that are raising their grandchildren after overdoses forever changed their families. We’ve also been writing about efforts, treatments and approaches taken other communities — some that appear to be showing positive results and some that are not.

This addiction crisis is showing no signs of stopping, and worse, drug dealers are finding new ways to connect new clients with incredibly addictive drugs. Some dealers have begun lacing marijuana with fentanyl, a powerful and dangerous opioid-based pain killer, Tony Villanueva, captain with the Trumbull County Sheriff’s Office and commander of the Trumbull-Ashtabula Group Law Enforcement Task Force, has confirmed. If you think marijuana is harmless, think again.

While this new idea is not yet widespread locally, I suspect the reasoning behind it would be to create a new addiction to drive up business for drug dealers — just another reason why answers are needed, and fast. We want to help.

Locally, our media collaborative is comprised of the Tribune Chronicle, the Vindicator, WFMJ-TV Channel 21 and WKSU National Public Radio at Kent State University. This Mahoning Valley media initiative is part of a larger statewide collaboration known as Your Voice Ohio / Ohio Media Project. The funding and organizational leadership comes from the Jefferson Center, a non-partisan public engagement organization in St. Paul, Minn. What is learned here in the Mahoning Valley also will be transferred to other communities around the state.

As I’ve written in this space before, the idea of putting aside the natural instinct to go head-to-head with competing media is new to me and my staff. I’m sure our media partners feel the same way.

But we are more than just journalists in the Mahoning Valley. We are neighbors who know that it’s very important to not only report the news, but with this issue reaching crisis proportions, to be part of the solution.

Together our trek begins drilling down deeper in search of ideas. For three consecutive evenings beginning tonight, our media collaborative will host community conversations involving hundreds of local people who have pre-registered to come together for round-table discussions about how this crisis has affected their lives.

More than just commiserating, however, we are hoping to draw ideas, engagement and possible solutions that may be working for some and that just might work for others. We’ll be talking about things like what we see as causes locally and what steps we might take to combat the epidemic.

Tonight’s session takes place in Youngstown. Monday’s session will be held at the YWCA in downtown Warren. A third session will occur in Struthers Tuesday. These cities — and even the neighborhoods — were chosen for these conversations because statistics show they are among the hardest hit by this addiction crisis.

We know in order to address the opioid crisis, we need to better understand it. That means engaging members of our community, hearing what they have to say and sharing information. I don’t know what will come out of these sessions, but I am hopeful that in some way, they will help.

If nothing else, we are listening.