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COLUMN: When it comes to heroin, enough is enough

The following article is an opinion piece and reflects the views of only the author and not those of AllOnGeorgia.


Over the Thanksgiving holiday, a schoolmate from my high school passed away. He was another soul that struggled with heroin, among other drugs, and ultimately succumbed to the lifestyle the wicked drug creates. He isn’t the first and unfortunately, he won’t be the last, but his story is one of the handfuls that have crushed the holiday spirit when communities learn of the news.

Everyone’s reaction? “I kind of saw this coming” or “I knew he/she had been struggling.”

I grew up in the golden corridor of the North Fulton suburbs in what is now the trifecta of Roswell, Alpharetta, and Johns Creek. The rolling subdivision hills of middle, upper-middle, and upper class homes with rich, green yards and luxury cars is seemingly quiet on any given day. Of course, that’s because heroin is the silent killer that garners only silence.

The truth is that silence has claimed the life of dozens of students from my high school, and others in the area. That’s right, heroin. But no one wants to talk about it. You won’t hear about it on the news, it’s unlikely that an online newspaper will cover it, and the print media can’t report what they don’t know. Those rogue bloggers are really the only ones.

Naturally, the path to addiction doesn’t always begin the way it does in other areas. Half-empty pain pill bottles at a weekend party have kids enjoying just a pill or two with a few drinks. It’s a fun escape until one or two becomes three or four on a daily basis. When the prescriptions run out, the cost of pain pills on the street is doable for a little while, but soon enough, the $65 for a pill that only leaves you wanting and needing more is unsustainable. That’s when the transition to cheaper and more accessible heroin occurs. But the journey is fairly irrelevant when you consider the final destination is the same.

pain-pills-per-personPart of me has grown to despise where I grew up – and part of it is because of this. Because no one wants to talk about what happens and it’s literally aiding in the destruction of hundreds of lives.

Some parents, not all – but some, pretend they don’t know the cause of their son or daughter’s death. Friends and neighbors know the truth and while they’ll discuss it privately amongst themselves, a real discussion about how it came to be on their street of dreams won’t ever happen. What a disservice the denial does to fellow family members, kids struggling with the same addiction, and parents who could possibly be alerted to signs and signals of someone in distress.

Besides, so what if your kid becomes addicted to a drug? It isn’t your fault. You didn’t give them the pills or the needle or encourage them to hit the streets looking for a dealer. It’s just something that happened to happen to your family. Things happen. Life happens. But when life happens and results in bankruptcies or divorces or unwanted pregnancies, we don’t just pretend they aren’t happening. Not talking about it is your fault.

Rates for drug-poisoning deaths involving heroin, by selected age and race and ethnicity groups: United States, 2000 and 2013
Rates for drug-poisoning deaths involving heroin, by selected age and race and ethnicity groups: United States, 2000 and 2013 COURTESY CDC

Even worse is the fact that failing to acknowledge a cause throws a kink in the statistics, which gives those in power the ability to say it isn’t a problem in the community. The elected officials won’t talk about it at all. It would be unpopular to be recruiting businesses and growing infrastructure in a city or county where addiction is depleting the youth population, wouldn’t it?  Even those campaigning for office won’t address the concern.

I’m a libertarian and I’m steadfast in the belief that the government cannot, and should not, save everyone, so don’t think I would suggest that infrastructure money or development cash should be diverted to saving people from their own demons of addiction. I don’t believe that at all, however, that’s not to say the government and society are properly addressing this epidemic that’s plaguing a much greater area than the North Fulton corridor. These people on a pedestal could lead by example, encourage their constituents to do outreach, speak at schools, churches, any event possible to reach people about an epidemic that’s leaving lots of empty seats at high school reunions.

Age-adjusted rates for drug-poisoning deaths involving heroin, by census region: United States, 2000, 2007, and 2013
CLICK TO ENLARGE – Age-adjusted rates for drug-poisoning deaths involving heroin, by census region: United States, 2000, 2007, and 2013 COURTESY CDC

This isn’t partisan and it isn’t something divided by socioeconomic status. It also isn’t a black or white thing, though use is more prevalent in non-Hispanic whites.

Graphics: Heroin Use Has INCREASED Among Most Demographic Groups, and Heroin Addiction and Overdose Deaths are Climbing. Click to view large images and text description.

So what do we do?

The affected communities don’t want methadone centers in their area and they don’t want to read stories about how Narcan saved someone’s life because that would make it real. If someone’s in jail, we don’t have to talk about why and that’s the easy way out.

Yes, possession of drugs, specifically heroin, is illegal. Whether or not you believe it should be is irrelevant because throwing someone in jail doesn’t cure their addiction any more than leaving them on the street does. That’s because “addiction” isn’t a criminal offense. It’s a mental disorder and we shouldn’t be embarrassed or ashamed of people who have mental disorders – permanent or temporary.

Before you hard-line military law enforcement types get off into the weeds about softening on crime, I’m not suggesting that. At least not here. If someone is dealing, lock ‘em up. If someone is working to have it shipped in, lock ‘em up. If someone is driving in a vehicle with a child while high on the drug, lock ‘em up. No one in their right mind will refute the fact that many drug-related actions warrant punishment, but that doesn’t mean we ignore the underlying issue.

This is a real issue. The CDC lists Georgia as a “statistically significant state” when it comes to heroin addiction and overdose, meaning the Peach State has seen a bigger spike than other states across the nation.

Nothing will change if society doesn’t soften on the stigmas of drug addiction. People will keep dying if society doesn’t soften on the stigma of drug addiction. But if the wall of silence is broken down, the pins could easily topple like dominoes. Besides, has anyone considered that a person who is clean and free of addiction will no longer seek to purchase drugs illegally? That a ‘former addict’ is someone who can no longer be labeled as a ‘menace to society’ because they’re neither cluttering your streets nor crowding your jails? That someone embarking on the journey of recovery is more qualified than anyone else to save someone else?

Instead of pretending that it will never affect your family or friends, understand that the drug knows no bounds and it can happen to anyone.

Instead of shaming someone who spends their day looking for a fix, understand that the only thing that will stop their help is full-fledged help.

Instead of ignoring the issue, understand that simply having a discussion with your neighbors could save a life.

We may not be able to save everyone because there will always be people who succumb to a demon, but should that demon exist because society wouldn’t talk about it?

A graphic showing the the relationship between prescription drug abuse and heroin abuse.
Annual average percentage of past-year heroin users* with past-year selected substance abuse or dependence, by time interval — United States, 2002–2013 COURTESY CDC

 

Jessica Szilagyi is a Statewide Contributor for AllOnGeorgia.com. She focuses primarily on state and local politics as well as issues in law enforcement. She has a background in Political Science with a focus in local government and has a Master of Public Administration from the University of Georgia. Jessica is a "Like It Or Not" contributor for Fox5 in Atlanta and has two blogs of her own: The Perspicacious Conservative and "Hair Blowers to Lawn Mowers."

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