THE OPIOID CRISIS
More than 50,000 people are dying from drug overdoses in the US each year, with the majority coming from middle-class white communities. Inside the US opioid crisis—and why Australians should be concerned
Americans are dying in their tens of thousands from a drug epidemic sparked by prescription pain medication—and it’s sweeping Australia, too.
They were young, with promising futures, loving families—and an addiction to heroin. Growing up in a comfortable suburb in Dallas, Texas, brothers Jack and Hunt Freeman played sports and did well in school. As they entered adulthood, they began to carve out lives for themselves. Hunt, 26, was a charismatic salesman at a local Harley- Davidson shop; Jack, 29, worked as a golf assistant at an country club. The youngest two of their family’s five children, they regularly texted their mum, Kim, a dentist, with jokes and upbeat messages. But the two also liked to party with alcohol and recreational drugs, first using marijuana and cocaine in high school and later moving on to heroin. The brothers entered rehab multiple times, but neither could stay clean for long. On Valentine’s Day 2017, Hunt fatally overdosed, which sent Jack into a drug-fuelled tailspin. Three months later he, too, overdosed. Kim Freeman got the news on the morning after Mother’s Day. “I wouldn’t want anyone to go through what we’ve been through,” says their heartbroken mum. “To lose two children is unimaginable.”
So, too, is the devastating speed at which heroin and other opioids are claiming lives, with US President Donald Trump declaring the crisis a public health emergency on Oct. 26 (in Australia, accidental deaths from pharmaceutical opioids now kill more people than heroin each year; see box, next page).
According to the US Centers for Disease Control, drug overdoses now kill more Americans than either guns or car accidents, a staggering 52,000 in 2015, the most recent year for which statistics are available. Experts attribute the rising death toll to increased use of prescription painkillers such as Vicodin, Percocet and Oxycontin. People become addicted to the drugs while being treated for a medical condition and then seek out more pills—or heroin—on the street when their prescription runs out. “This problem of addiction truly does start in the medicine
cabinet,” says Russ Baer, a special agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration in Washington, D.C. “It starts with the misuse and abuse of prescription opioid painkillers.”
The death rate from overdoses of heroin and prescription painkillers has more than quadrupled since 1999. The vast majority of those deaths—approximately 80 per cent—have taken place in white communities, in part, experts suggest, because white Americans have better access to health care in general, and are more likely to be prescribed narcotics by their physicians. “Every state in the country has been affected by the epidemic,” according to Dr Andrew Kolodny, co-director of opioidpolicy research at Brandeis University. “We’ve never seen anything like this before. This may be one of the worst drug-addiction epidemics in history.”
To help curtail the rising tide of death and destruction, many people who are all too familiar with the pain and heartbreak of opioid addiction are finding ways to help. Bill Schmincke, 52, of Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey, watched his son Steven spiral from occasional marijuana use into severe opioid addiction that landed him in rehab several times. “He was a good kid; the drugs just got him,” says Schmincke. “It changed his life and priorities. Once the stuff gets a hold of you, it doesn’t let go.”
By 2016 Steven was a father of two, but he still couldn’t kick the habit—nor could his girlfriend, who is currently in a drug- treatment program. “If we hadn’t heard from Steven in a few weeks, we’d go out and bust down doors trying to find him and his girlfriend in the middle of the night,” Schmincke recalls. “We’d literally go through doors. It was horrific.” After Steven died of an overdose in March 2016, Schmincke and his wife, Tammy, began Stop the Heroin (stoptheheroin.org), a nonprofit organisation that helps people transition from rehab to sober living. “We’re about awareness now,” says Schmincke. “We’d like to bring light to people who don’t understand addiction. They think these people out there are junkies and drug addicts, which they’re not. They’re in the grasp of a demon.”
For many of these activists, a loved one’s death immersed them in an unfamiliar and terrifying world. “I knew nothing about heroin—not one thing—before my son died,” says Kathleen Wolff, a retired caregiver in Florida who lost her son Michael to an overdose in August 2014. “After he died, I was on a mission to learn every single thing I could learn. I found the only support group there was back then. I was shocked by the number of people who were in this situation.”
Motivated to help, she and two other mothers created Covered with Love, a Facebook support group that provides a place for families of addicts to learn about treatments and resources—or simply to talk
“He was a good kid; the drugs just got him. It changed his life and priorities.” —Bill Schmincke
about their own emotional journey of addiction and recovery. “My thinking was that maybe we could save one mother, one family, one person from dying, from losing their child, from this God-awful pain,” she says. Since its launch in October 2014, the group’s membership has swelled to more than 3,600. “People were finding our group because they needed help,” she says. “They were desperate. By helping, my pain was lessened somehow. It helped me heal. ”
The stigma of drug addiction weighed heavily on Kim Humphrey, a retired Phoenix Police Department commander who has been a facilitator of the nonprofit organisation Parents of Addicted Loved Ones since 2012. Humphrey and his wife, Michelle, watched their two sons go through addiction and recovery—both have been sober for several years—and now share their experiences at the organisation’s weekly meetings. “Some say, ‘That will never happen to my kid. I’m raising my kid properly,’ ” says Humphrey. “I don’t know what to tell you. My wife and I have been married 34 years and have a strong, stable family unit. We have to get past the idea that addiction is a character flaw.”
Even as the number of casualties continues to rise, families who have lost loved ones hope that by sharing their stories they can help others avoid a similar fate. “People say, ‘Oh, they have to hit rock bottom,’ says Bill Schmincke, who is now raising his son Steven’s daughters, Abigail, 6, and Cassidy, 7. “Well, death was my son’s rock bottom. It doesn’t have to be other people’s.”