Eric Luechtefeld doesn’t need a microphone. His resonant voice seems to fill any space — even one as big as the Audrain County 4-H Center’s main room.
Luechtefeld, a member of the Narcotics Unit with the East Central Drug Task Force, and Audrain County Sheriff Matt Oller addressed about 60 members of the county’s chapter of the Missouri Farm Bureau during its annual meeting Thursday at the Audrain 4-H Center. The topic was Luechtefeld’s area of expertise: drugs and addiction.
Over a dinner of smoked pork chops and iced tea, Luechtefeld and Oller gave an extensive presentation on methamphetamines and opioids, two types of narcotics that have derailed hundreds of thousands of lives in rural America since the 1980s.
Luechtefeld said Audrain County and the surrounding area has historically been a meth haven but that heroin and other devastating opioids would likely soon be infiltrating the community as they have in so many other rural areas.
“[Heroin] is making its way this way. It’s coming, and I promise you’re going to know it’s in your community,” Luechtefeld said. “The sheriff’s department is going to know first, not because they’re finding heroin … but because your burglaries in the county are going to double overnight.”
Oller confirmed that this was the case four months ago when the department arrested several suspects who confessed to committing the burglary to feed a heroin addiction. He said he knew then that heroin had arrived in Audrain County.
The full scope of the opioid epidemic in Audrain is not known, but in Missouri as a whole, the number of opioid-related deaths has nearly doubled since 2012, according to the Department of Health and Senior Services.
Luechtefeld and Oller said heroin has been arriving in rural communities from larger cities like Chicago, St. Louis and Kansas City. Both law enforcement officials described prescription drugs as the original culprit to blame for opioid addiction.
While many used to consider marijuana the main “gateway drug,” Luechtefeld said it’s undeniable that prescription drugs containing opioids have long held this title.
Luechtefeld and Oller said many heroin users legally acquire prescription drugs, like hydrocodone, morphine or oxycodone, and eventually develop a chemical dependency. After their prescriptions run out, they go looking for a “fix” on the streets that could stave off the dreadful effects of opioid withdrawal.
The data supports Luechtefeld and Oller’s hypothesis. A 2013 study from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported that more than 80 percent of heroin users first took prescription painkillers, often for a legitimate ailment.
Several attendees asked the presenters how they could best help the community fight through the epidemic. Luechtefeld said people should properly dispose of excess medications at approved sites and say something to law enforcement if they notice a friend or family member displaying signs of opioid addiction.
Luechtefeld also brought up Missouri’s lack of a prescription drug monitoring system, which he said could keep some opioid painkillers off the street. Missouri is currently the only state in the country without such a policy in the books.
State representative Sara Walsh, R-Ashland, said establishing a monitoring system is a complicated matter, but she expressed hope that the legislature would find a solution next spring.
“We’ll see if there is a way that we can have a policy, have some legislation that is being careful of people’s privacy rights, but at the same time, addressing the problem,” Walsh said.
The local chapter’s president, Barb Wilson, said the bureau decided to invite the law enforcement officials to speak on the opioid crisis, because it has become an unfortunate part of life in rural America, and she believes the public should be educated on the subject.
“The Farm Bureau has realized, not only statewide but nationwide, that farmers have been … touched by the opioid epidemic,” Wilson said. “It is a rural issue in the United States, not only in Missouri.”