Robert Leahy was sitting on his couch, watching TV, when his wife, Gretchen, walked through the front door.
It was about 10 p.m. She’d left for the grocery store hours earlier. Now, she “bumbled” about the room, Leahy says, incoherent and vacant. He’d seen her like this before.
“What the f**k are you doing?” he asked. “You’re high.”
After the initial shock wore off, Leahy was angry and embarrassed. He worried about his reputation and what his colleagues at the Clermont County Sheriff’s Office would think. He’d been a law enforcement officer for more than a decade, and now he was married to a heroin addict.
He needed to save himself and their young son. He had done all he could to save her.
Just weeks earlier, Gretchen had returned home to Madeira, Ohio, from Crossroads Centre Antigua, an addiction treatment facility founded by musician Eric Clapton. It was one of a handful of times she’d received treatment for opiate addiction in the past five years. Leahy says he spent more than $16,000 — nearly all of their life savings — to cover the cost.
And now she was high again.
On September 7, 2005, Leahy filed for divorce and a temporary restraining order. At the time, the US opioid epidemic was in its early stages. Abuse of prescription painkillers was a growing, if hidden, problem, and heroin addiction had yet to ravage rural and suburban America. That would soon change. Nearly 15,000 Americans — 500 from Ohio alone — died of an opioid overdose in 2005. In 2015, those numbers soared to 33,000 and 2,700 deaths, respectively.
At first, Leahy could not understand why his wife had let herself become an addict, why she had made that choice. But as he watched her struggle for years to stay clean, his knowledge of addiction matured. He began to see it as a disease in need of treatment and compassion.
More than a decade later, as Ohio grapples with one of the deadliest drug epidemics in American history, the state’s criminal justice system has undergone a similar transformation. Local officers and judges know that they can no longer treat all addicts like criminals. To stop an epidemic, they have to think like medical professionals.
‘This is a mass fatality crisis’
On July 31, the White House’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis released an interim report asking President Donald Trump to declare the opioid epidemic a national health emergency.
Ohio has been one of the states hit hardest by the crisis. Last year, 86% of…