My monthly article will continue Dr. Julian Jones’ recent column that discussed the heroin problems in our area. My intention is to contribute to the mounting media focus on the local heroin problem, in the hope that bringing this issue “out of the closet” and “into the forefront” of our community focus may help some people heal from the affects of heroin. And believe me, heroin is affecting many more people than just those who choose to inject or sniff this opiate into their body.
Heroin has personally impacted me and members of my family. I have been given permission by my daughter to share the following stories with you.
My daughter’s first boyfriend began to experiment with heroin several years after my daughter began to date him. He was dealing with some challenging mental health issues (bipolar diagnosis) as well as some social adjustment problems. His family had emigrated from another country to this area in search of better employment opportunities, and adjusting to cold and insular northern New England was not easy for them. While he was already taking medication for his mental health issues, it was at the suggestion of a friend that he began to use heroin. He found some social acceptance using this drug. Or maybe the temporary high helped ease some of his mental anguish.
One day my daughter returned to the apartment she was renting to find her boyfriend and another man shooting each other with heroin in the arm. Shortly thereafter she had to leave that apartment because that image was seared too strongly in her mind to continue to live there.
This young man’s family rallied around him. So did my daughter, who for many months drove him to a methadone treatment center almost daily. His parents paid out of pocket thousands for this treatment. My daughter came close to failing her courses that year, so focused was she on his healing.
And then one day his family decided to return back to their home country – a place known for its high level of violence and challenges. They told us, “It is the only way we know to get our son away from heroin.” Now, several years later, his mother tells me via Skyep that her son is clean of illegal drug use and she is glad she left Keene because it might have saved his life.
I tell her about a young woman who had visited our home a few years ago when she was drug free; she is now dead from a heroin overdose.
Flash forward to this year. My daughter finally finds another young man she likes and they begin to date. He is a local boy from a working class family. It takes us months to realize that he is a heroin addict. In the meantime, some of our money and possessions have been lost to his habit.
He hides his addiction from us for some time. My daughter observes him shooting up with friends. It no longer bothers her because, as she puts it, “I have become desensitized since it is so common.”
His father tells me that he wishes he could help his son get over the addiction but they have no health insurance and little money. What can they do?
My daughter pithily comments, “I guess if you are poor and a heroin addict you don’t have much of a chance to get over it around here.”
At least six people have died of heroin overdoses this year in Keene alone. Statistics show that the rates of heroin use in our community are extremely high, even compared to the rest of New Hampshire which ranks high nationally in heroin use.
Of course, this area ranks high in substance abuse of many types. Several factors may influence this phenomenon, including genetic and family histories; class disparities (often unacknowledged); the legacy of mill and factory towns; a state that garners much of its revenues from taxing legal substances (alcohol and cigarettes); and a local subculture that emphasizes drinking and drug use. Still, heroin right now is the most serious substance abuse problem facing our community and one of our most menacing public health problems.
It seems that the more the US wages “war” on drugs, the worse becomes our drug problems. Penalizing and criminalizing the personal use of drugs with stiff crimes and jail sentences has succeeded in giving the US the highest incarceration rate in the world and also exacerbated our drug problems.
Instead, maybe we can learn from “softer” and “more compassionate” strategies that other nations such as Portugal have followed with positive results. According to an April 26, 2009 Time magazine article, Portugal decriminalized all drugs for personal use in 2001. “The argument was that the fear of prison drives addicts underground and that incarceration is more expensive than treatment — so why not give drug addicts health services instead? Under Portugal’s new regime, people found guilty of possessing small amounts of drugs are sent to a panel consisting of a psychologist, social worker and legal adviser for appropriate treatment (which may be refused without criminal punishment), instead of jail.”
This approach has been very successful in Portugal, which has seen drug use decline across the boards since its implementation. Several other countries are also experimenting with similar approaches.
While at the local level we can not make such sweeping changes, at the very least maybe we can work together to find caring and compassionate ways to help heroin addicts who want to access treatment options and support, no matter what their economic resources are.
Many traditions and cultures know that our own personal health and well-being is intimately interconnected with the health and well-being of our fellow community members. In some ways – invisible, almost imperceptible – many of us are being impacted by the local heroin epidemic. Even if you yourself do not know anyone who has a loved one who has gotten involved with heroin, the sadness and suffering that many of us have experienced witnessing heroin related events permeates the general mood of our community. And it offers us all an opportunity to respond with compassion, care, and a search for kind solutions that are less punitive and more healing in intention and outcome.
Published 7/2014, Monadnock Shopper