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

WHO - - In this Issue - By Alexan­dra Rockey Flem­ing, Steve Helling and Jenny Brown with re­port­ing by Caitlin Keat­ing, Liam Berry and Alexis Ch­est­nov

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 (stopthe­, 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.”

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