For most people the subject of heroin is not an issue at the top of their household concerns. As with many things, if an issue does not affect you directly its priority is diminished. That is not a statement of condemnation, merely a reality that each of us must deal with the issues that face us immediately.
In a past life, I proudly served as a police officer in a New Hampshire community. I saw and dealt with many things that helped to shape my attitudes and beliefs. One day I was dispatched to the home of a mother concerned about her daughter. That was all I was told initially. What this case became would affect me for the rest of my life.
I was greeted by the mother and welcomed into her home. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary; in fact it was a pleasant, upper-middle-class home. The mother showed me a recent picture of her daughter. If someone wanted to convey to the world what a typical “American kid next door” might look like, this picture was it. The mother explained that her daughter, whom I will call Denise, graduated from high school at the top of her class academically and was also a star athlete in several sports. After leaving high school she attended college at the University of New Hampshire. It was there that the mother started to notice a frightening change in Denise.
Each visit home, Denise’s mother started to notice drastic changes. Severe mood swings, extreme weight loss (from a fit 120 pounds to 80 pounds), a pale complexion and a disheveled appearance. The person before the mother was no longer the daughter with whom she had a strong and loving relationship. Instead she was faced with a shell of a person. What the mother would eventually find out was that Denise had become a heroin addict.
Heroin use is an epidemic in America. Sadly, New Hampshire has not been immune from this plague. In fact, New Hampshire is on the front lines. In the past two years, at least 83 of our fellow New Hampshirites have died from a heroin overdose. This number is far more than the victims of homicide. The body count only scratches the surface of the human toll that heroin addiction has on our neighbors. In the matter of heroin addiction, the living often envy the dead.
The National Institute of Drug Abuse reports that approximately 4 million Americans have tried heroin at least once during their lives and that 23 percent of individuals who use heroin become dependent. Since 2002, heroin use has doubled, with an increase of 66 percent, meaning there are close to 700,000 heroin addicts currently walking among us.
Heroin is cheap and readily available, sometimes costing as little as $10 for a small baggie. Much of the heroin supply comes from Mexico — another reason to fiercely secure our borders — where production has increased by more than 600 percent in the last 10 years. What is more frightening is that as the drug becomes cheaper and more readily available than ever, we are learning through studies that more than 34,000 youth age 12 to 17 are now trying heroin for the first time each year. Contrary to what many believe, this issue is not solely an inner-city problem, but a major issue with communities such as Portsmouth, Bedford, Dover and other quaint New Hampshire villages.
People do not suddenly wake up and decide to become heroin addicts. There are many potential pathways to addiction, but one of the most common starting points is at our doctor’s office. Every year since 2007, doctors have written more than 200 million prescriptions for opioid painkillers; 200 million prescriptions in a nation of 314 million people are helping to fuel this epidemic as much as Mexican drug cartels. The simple fact is that 4 in 5 new heroin addicts report they became addicted to prescription pills before they ever took heroin. People turn to heroin because opioid medication is extremely costly and hard to obtain.
Denise was lured into drug addiction thanks to an addict she met at college. Addicts rely on “recruiting” other people into the web of addiction. Denise’s descent into a heroin hell was fast and devastating. Denise’s mother gave me the address where her daughter was “staying.” I was not sure what I really could do, but the desperation on a mother’s face and in her voice compelled me to go to the daughter’s location. What I found convinced me that legalizing drugs was not an answer, that we as a community would be nothing more than willing participants in stealing a person’s humanity.
Without bothering to see who was at the door, I was invited into a pitch-dark apartment. The stench of human waste and garbage was repulsive and stomach-turning. As some people found the energy to flee, I just started calling out for Denise. Lying in the corner, reeking of urine and feces, was the “girl next door.” Drowning in her “high,” she was completely at the mercy of whoever was around her.
Denise was transported to the hospital for treatment, where her mother met us. The doctor volunteered that he would be willing to sign commitment papers, either voluntary or involuntary, to help Denise. The day was spent getting forms filled out and approved. The last I heard, Denise had been approved for a treatment facility, not a normal outcome by any means.
As a community, the epidemic of heroin addiction is everyone’s problem. We need to re-energize ourselves to resolve this plight. Through a combined partnership involving the business community — medical professionals, nonprofits, government, we should focus on four key areas:
1. Stronger intervention and prevention programs before addiction.
2. Strict enforcement of the manufacturers, importers and distributors of this poison.
3. Alternative treatment, improved protective confinement facilities and readily available support mechanisms for addicts. Traditional prison confinement has not worked.
4. Awareness training for medical professionals. Stop the overprescribing or the blatant illegal distribution of opioid painkillers.
A few years after leaving police work, I was in a local grocery store when I ran into Denise. She thanked me for helping her. At first I didn’t recognize her, but her appearance was close to that of the picture her mother showed me. Denise told me she was still scared and always worried about relapsing, but she did remember that day I found her, and it was a place she never wanted to return.
Denise was an exception, frankly a miracle. All the stars were aligned that one fateful day when a mother, with nowhere else to turn, made a phone call. The plague of heroin is something we can no longer ignore.