Nothing is simple in drug court.
“I feel like you and I have been having this little cat and mouse game,” Judge Greg Howard tells a tall, bearded young man seated at the table below him one Monday morning in February.
“First it’s about your employment, whether it was under the table or not. Now it is about whether you are flirting with or dating someone else in the program,” said Howard with exasperation, leaning forward on his judge’s bench as the man nodded and hid a grin.
“I want you to focus on the drug problem.”
Here, in a beat-up downtown, sandwiched between a noisy railroad and the brown waters of the Ohio River, is the US opioid epidemic’s ground zero — the drug court for this city of 47,000 with an overdose rate 10 times the national average.
These days, Huntington is best known for two things. The first is a cluster of 26 overdoses and two deaths that all happened in a five-hour stretch in the early morning of Aug. 15, 2016, and were all tied to heroin and other opioids. The deaths alarmed public health officials, pointing to the lethality of fentanyl, a synthetic drug roughly 30 times more potent than heroin, and carfentanil, an astonishing 5,000 times more potent than heroin. At the start of the decade, fentanyl overdoses were rare. Now the drug and its chemical cousins are the country’s leading cause of fatal overdoses.
The town’s newer claim to fame is the gripping 2017 documentary, Heroin(e), the story of three Huntington women: fire chief Jan Rader, realtor Necia Freeman, and Judge Patricia Keller, who in 2009 started the county’s drug court, a treatment program that offers people arrested on drug-related charges the chance to have their arrests wiped away, if they can stay off drugs. The film, directed by Elaine McMillion Sheldon, has been nominated for an Academy Award.