LENS Health and Wellness

Going After Opioid Dealers

Researchers Help Improve Tools for Investigators and Prosecutors

Case Western Reserve University researchers helped create a national model for investigating and prosecuting rape cases. Now, with nearly $975,000 from the U.S. Department of Justice's National Institute of Justice, they're working with local police, the Cuyahoga County medical examiner and prosecutors to tackle the opioid crisis.

Researchers from the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences will analyze how heroin and opioid overdose cases are handled, and then suggest ways to improve investigations, successfully prosecute more drug dealers and decrease overdose deaths.

What researchers learn and recommend will be shared with other communities across the country struggling with the devastating and still-growing opioid crisis.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the number of opioid-related overdose deaths in 2016 was five times higher than in 1999, climbing to more than 42,200.

Since 2013, when the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio organized a heroin and opioid task force, the number of local deaths related to those drugs surged from 261 to more than 600 last year, according to the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner's Office.

But it's not just the volume that's so confounding. More dangerously powerful combinations of illicit drugs make even the smallest doses lethal. To fit the new realities, the task force wanted to assess and retool its protocols.

"We need to update how our community responds—from hospital systems, to police, first responders and many others," said Daniel Flannery, PhD, director of the Mandel School's Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education. Flannery, the Semi J. and Ruth W. Begun Professor, is co-leading the opioid research as well as the work analyzing recently tested rape kits.

Members of the Mandel School team came to the project with essential relationships developed during collaborations on other law-enforcement initiatives, in which they participated in research, measured results or recommended improvements.

"Dan and his team are a vital part of what we do in the U.S. Attorney's office," said spokesman Mike Tobin. "The goal here is to get significant prison time for people selling heroin and fentanyl and killing our friends and neighbors. To get long sentences, we need sufficient evidence, and Dan and the team will help us fine-tune" the investigative process.

—Sandra Livingston