A drug epidemic is ravaging Lorain County, but Oberlin police reported just 33 total drug offenses in their 2016 annual report.
Those numbers seemed a little low to our reporting staff, so the News-Tribune started digging to see why so few drug cases were recorded.
The annual report stated there were 16 arrests for marijuana possession and another four for drug paraphernalia possession last year. Those numbers really jumped out and seemed quite low for a city the size of Oberlin.
After all, according to the police reports published in our pages in 2016, there were 42 instances where Oberlin College security turned over drug paraphernalia — bongs, glass pipes, grinders, rolling papers, burnt marijuana cigarettes, and baggies containing marijuana, to name a few — to the Oberlin police.
In 41 of the 42 instances, no charges were filed. The lone exception was when a man went to the police station to claim a backpack that had been confiscated; he was charged with possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia.
There’s a simple reason charges weren’t filed in the other 41 instances, according to interim police chief Michael McCloskey.
“When they (Oberlin College security) find marijuana on campus, in a dorm room or whatever — it’s collected along with pipes, bongs, or whatever paraphernalia — they gather it up and we don’t receive any information about where it was recovered from, who was the owner, or anything like that,” McCloskey said. “So we don’t charge, because we don’t have anyone to charge.”
When the police receive drugs or paraphernalia from college security, they collect it, enter it into the evidence system, and then get a court order to destroy it, according to McCloskey.
The way college security handles such drug offenses isn’t anything new.
According to McCloskey, potential campus drug offenses have been handled the same way for years, thanks to an agreement with the college.
“It’s been like that for quite some time,” McCloskey said. “Several chiefs ago, when I first started here, there was an arrangement made between the head of security, at the time, and our chief, and I don’t remember which chief it was, about how that stuff was being handled.”
McCloskey estimated the agreement was made at least 15 years ago. Prior to the arrangement, the college destroyed any drugs or paraphernalia security found, he said.
“I believe…the college used to collect that stuff, maintain it in their own room, and destroy it themselves,” he said. “There was some question over handling that since it’s contraband and potential evidence, so some arrangement was made and that started the process of them just turning it over to us.”
Oberlin College’s Mike Martinsen, who recently became the director of Safety and Security, explained how the college handles potential drug offenses.
“When our security personnel respond to a report of found drug paraphernalia it is our responsibility to make sure the contraband is disposed of properly by contacting the Oberlin Police Department,” Martinsen said. “Regarding your comment on how ‘cases are handled’ I can’t speak to that, I was not a party to any discussions that took place prior to my arrival.
“I’m happy to share that my early impression is that Oberlin College does an incredible job educating our students about drug usage and life choices.”
McCloskey said he doesn’t have any issue with the way the college has decided to handle potential drug offenses by students on campus.
“I understand from the college’s position, too,” he said. “Do they really want to do that for what amounts to a minor misdemeanor, or a fourth-degree misdemeanor? Subjecting their students to the court system, I don’t know that that benefits anyone.”
The number of heroin arrests in Oberlin last year also struck us as surprising.
In 2016, 131 people in Lorain County were killed by heroin, but there was only one heroin-related arrest — for possession — last year by Oberlin police.
McCloskey said it wasn’t because there’s a lack of a heroin problem in Oberlin, but the low number of arrests was more of a result in lack of manpower.
“I think that a lot of our enforcement activity was under the purview of our narcotics unit, and there just wasn’t a lot of activity in our drug unit, mainly because of staff changes,” he said. “People who were on our narcotics unit were promoted. Because of that transition, the unit wasn’t very active in 2016.
“We still have the same issues as the other areas of the county. We see the same thing. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the staffing to dedicate to those sorts of investigations.”
McCloskey also believes staffing issues were partially to blame for the lack of marijuana-related arrests, but he doesn’t think that was the only reason.
“A lot of the marijuana offenses that are generated here are through traffic stops or contacts,” he said. “Last year, marijuana didn’t turn up as much, but I think the lack of staffing in our drug unit had an effect on that, as well.”
While McCloskey hopes the department will be able to have a more active narcotics unit in 2017, he said it could be difficult since there could be more staff changes soon when a new police chief is hired.
“The hope is to ramp up the activity,” he said.
Scott Mahoney can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @sm_mahoney on Twitter.