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Chasing an Angry Fix: Greenville’s Heroin Addiction

by Spencer Bennington
Guardian contributor

Close-up on the floor of the syringe with the drug. In the background, a young drug addict.

Close-up on the floor of the syringe with the drug. In the background, a young drug addict.

Teaching freshman writing is a pretty inaccurate description of my day job. Yes, it’s my duty to compose lesson plans, deliver lectures, and coach 80+ students through multiple written drafts of a variety of essays, but any instructor who works closely with eighteen-year-olds for any extended period can tell you that teaching is more often about listening than speaking.

At my small liberal arts college in Virginia, most adjunct instructors teach a composition 101 course in the fall semester and the subsequent 102 in the spring. It’s not uncommon for my students in the fall to attempt to “double dip” by registering for my 102 course the following semester—I tell myself it’s because I’m so likeable, but really it may have more to do with the fact that I’m a bit of a pushover.

Either way, for the most part, students who opt to take my class a second time are ones I’m delighted to see again. This semester was no different in that regard. I had many of my strong writers back again and I was excited to challenge them with new material. Before our first class, I spoke to one of my more energetic and entertaining students (and truthfully one of my favorites) out in the hallway. I thought it was going to be a simple “what’s up?”

But a casual “how was your break?” unleashed a response I was in no way prepared to hear.

“Bad,” Logan told me. “Real, real bad.”

The truth is, teaching is all about listening. Once students feel like you won’t judge them, once they trust you, they’ll tell you just about anything. The problem is, much of it is really, really hard to hear.

“I spent Christmas in rehab,” he told me. “Towards the end of last semester I relapsed on heroin and, well, the University found out.”

Relapse…

Relapse?

I was pinned down, trapped under the weight of my own skin. How could this kid be hooked on heroin? And how in the hell could an eighteen year old have relapsed?

Logan continued to tell me that day how the University informed his parents that either he be admitted to a rehabilitation facility immediately or be expelled from school. He told me how he lived in a fraternity house that served as a drug den, how he couldn’t pay the rent and the pipes had burst, how he lost his job and his car broke down, and how all he could dream of was the release he remembered from high school.

How it was so easy.

How the heroin was right there in front of him.

If you can’t already tell, it’s hard for me to analyze this objectively. And, to be honest, I want to make it hard for you too. Because, truthfully, I’d rather have readers care than just be informed.

That being said, allow me to inform you: Heroin is an ongoing problem in Greenville. Drug and alcohol abuse rates for Greenville compared to the state, the region, and the national averages provide shocking insight. According to the Walter B. Jones Alcohol and Drug Abuse Treatment Center (ADATC), the number of patients admitted because of heroin abuse has risen since its highest spikes in 1998 (186 admitted) and 2006 (235 admitted) to a staggering 272 patients reported in 2012. This means that the ADATC sees roughly 26 admitted patients every month.

Of course, Walter B. Jones and other treatment centers in the area see a much higher influx of patients with alcohol or crack cocaine addictions (almost triple and double respectively) but both of these substances have seen steady decline since their highest spikes in 1996 whereas heroin has slowly become more popular.

What’s more, the ADATC reports that “Greenville has a higher prevalence than the state, region, and national average for daily use amongst patients. Of all patients admitted in Greenville, 68.1% used daily.” The bar graph illustrates how patients admitted to Walter B. Jones are more frequent users than those in all other comparable areas—that means it’s more likely that heroin users in Greenville are not only becoming more prevalent, but are using more often.

 

What may come as the biggest surprise for many readers is the availability of heroin. If you’re like me, you thought this was one of those drugs you only see in movies or TV, one that only people in New York and LA have problems with. But, like me, you’d be wrong. Law enforcement agencies from Greenville, East Carolina University, Pitt County, Winterville, Farmville and the NC State Bureau of Investigations all pool resources to combat schedule 1 narcotics in our area.

“The Greenville Regional Drug Task Force,” said spokesperson Christy Wallace, “uses a focused and cost effective approach to combating narcotics traffickers within Pitt County and Eastern North Carolina. The Drug Task Force provides an extremely effective network of experienced criminal investigators dedicated to pursuing violators of state and federal controlled substance laws. Leveraging each partner agency’s expertise, equipment, manpower and finances has proven to be a substantial benefit to the citizens of Pitt County and [a] model of success.”

Unfortunately, however, as has long been true, police efforts in the war on drugs greatly resemble Hercules’ attempt to behead the mythological hydra—despite multiple large arrests in the past few years, more and more dealers keep popping up. One of the more recent busts in the Greenville area was a dealer by the name of Jason Deshon Blount last May. Blount was found with 990 bags of heroin—an amount priced roughly around $20,000. What’s worse is that lab reports later determined this heroin was laced with Fentanyl, a painkiller 100 times more potent than morphine. Fentanyl is lethal when combined with Heroin and increases the chance of overdosing exponentially.

In remarks to the press, former Greenville Police Chief Hassan Aden expressed deep concern over this issue of heroin trafficking in our area and spearheaded an investigation to uncover the source. Aden suggested that the combination of the area’s “blue” (medium-sized) highways and proximity to the coast both entice Mexican cartels and encourage drug trade. The chief also hinted at some kind of “five-year plan” on the federal level, but for now, it seems local law enforcement is on its own. For now, all they can hope to do is get as much of heroin off the streets “before someone dies.”

Someone like my student, Logan. For the past few months I’ve tried to stay close to him, offered my support in any way I could think of, and he’s confided in me some of the darker truths about heroin abuse. “My life’s an open book,” he told me. “Anyone that knows me knows that I’m doing everything I can to get rid of heroin in our area. People need to know that this is a serious problem, one that destroys people’s lives,” he told me.

Logan explained how, at age 13, he first tried heroin with some of his friends. A combination of rebellion, boredom and paranoid schizophrenia all had Logan looking for something to make him who he wanted to become—to make this world one in which he wanted to live. “I hate this life, man, I mean, the way people treat each other makes me sick. And honestly, when I did heroin, I could finally stomach it.”

He described how shooting up in the bathroom in high school was easy, how teachers or principals couldn’t even notice a difference in him. “Heroin let me function the way I needed to for any given situation. If I needed to talk and do work in class, I could. But as soon as that was done, I could just crash.”

Logan also suffered from insomnia for many years, so the ability to have prolonged restful sleep was one he treasured greatly. But this sleep and feeling of euphoria in his daily life came at a price. “If you look back at my first picture ID when I was like 12 and compare it to pictures of me when I was 15, and then 18…you can see how my cheeks sunk in…and my eyes.”

After his relapse and near overdose in December, Logan was all but forced into an inpatient methadone clinic, an experience with which he was already familiar. When I asked about the effectiveness of treatment, he told me, “Methadone [treatment] is like giving the butt of a cigarette to someone who’s used to smoking two packs a day…all it does is tease a real user.” Logan spoke vehemently about the chemical treatment, but had relatively positive things to say about the psychological therapy offered at the rehabilitation center. “I mean, yeah, there were days when I felt uncomfortable and violated [referring to strip searches and blood draws], but for the most part I knew these people [the staff] were doing what they needed to do and what they were trained to do to try and help me.”

Many of the drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers in the Greenville area, ADATC included, describe their facilities and methods in similar ways. Instead of using the language of substance abuse, these centers almost exclusively describe a mental rehabilitation. When I asked Logan if this made him feel like an extra in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, he told me that only the folks in heavy denial say they lack psychological problems which need sorting out. And, at the end of the day, Logan reaffirmed that the motive for his own sobriety was a psychological one.

“It hit me one day, talking to the doctors when they said how I might not live to be 60,” he said. “I didn’t realize it until then, but what I had been gambling with was time. And when I realized how much I wanted to have a family and see the birth of my children and maybe even grandchildren, when I realized that I may have stolen that from myself, that’s what finally stuck for me.”

Unfortunately, there’s no easy conclusion to this. The police are knee-deep in narcotics from Mexico, the rehab centers in our area see rising numbers every day, and adolescents just like Logan are suffering with addiction and recovery. So how are we supposed to combat this problem when it seems to be surrounding us on all sides? How do we keep from being swallowed up by the ever-spawning serpents’ jaws of our own creation?

Perhaps we don’t.

Hercules did not overcome his ordeals by blindly swinging his club in fights he couldn’t win. He changed his approach upon realizing that his strategy wasn’t working. Greenville, and the rest of the country, should be no more stubborn about approaching this crisis in a different way.

As radical as it may seem, Portugal decided to completely decriminalize all narcotics a decade ago. Since then, drug abuse rates have been cut in half. How can this be? The answer is fairly simple: cost-effectiveness. According to the Justice Policy Institute’s 2004 report entitled National and State Findings on the Efficacy and Cost Savings of Drug Treatment Versus Imprisonment, rehabilitation is, in the long-term, much cheaper than incarceration.

Also worth noting, in America, is that roughly 51 billion dollars is spent annually on the “war on drugs.” This figure does not include the cost of imprisoning those who are convicted of drug-related crimes. What Portugal has discovered over the past decade is simple: All that money can be spent more productively. With more resources devoted to treatment centers, education and psychological help, drug abuse and recidivism rates in thart country are in steep decline.

In North Carolina, there have been small pushes in the state legislature towards a more liberal way of treating our state’s addiction. In 2013, in an effort to prevent further transmission of AIDS and Hepatitis C, the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition successfully lobbied for the decriminalization of syringes as “illegal drug paraphernalia.” Again, the approach here is to protect instead of punish citizens and promote an overall safer state.

Last year, Governor Pat McCrory signed into law a bill that allowed the medical use of cannabidiol, a compound found in marijuana, for the treatment of seizures. Despite the fact that nearly 70 percent of people across the state believe doctors should be allowed to prescribe marijuana for medical use, according a January poll conducted by Public Policy, a House bill to legalize medical marijuana sales died in committee March 25. The same primary sponsors of that bill, three Mecklenburg County representatives and one from Guilford County, filed a more limited bill to legalize medical marijuana for terminally ill patients on March 23. It has been sent to the legislature’s Judiciary, Health and Regulatory committees. While there is certainly hope for change, it may still be a long time coming.

There is, of course, always the fear that legalization or decriminalization will somehow spawn a whole new crop of drug-crazed dropouts. Facts, however, show this simply isn’t true.

“If you have a reason to try it [drugs], or some need that you’re trying to fulfill,” Logan told me, “that’s when you’re going to try it. Doesn’t matter if it’s cheap or expensive, legal or illegal—if you think that’s what you need you’ll do anything to get it.”

When I asked him what he thought about legalization, Logan said the way law enforcement currently handles the issue is flawed. “They’ll bust up some college kids and write tickets and do what they have to do to get money back in the system, but they’re not going after the big players.” Logan went on to say that if decriminalization would help prevent much of the gang-related violence associated with the illicit drug trade, that would be a reward in itself.

“Heroin is a terrible, terrible drug,” he said, and shared his belief that we don’t need to make it any worse by fostering a community of violence and aggression, by branding as criminals those who have serious medical and psychological needs, or by punishing those who are already, in the words of Allen Ginsberg, are “destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked…looking for an angry fix.”

But maybe I’m wrong.

If you think so, I’d love to hear your feedback. One of the goals of the Greenville Guardian is to track the pulse of this community. Please share your thoughts and comments so we can help come to some sort of meaningful solution to this growing problem – both here in our own back yard, and in the country as a whole.

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One Response

  1. Ed Griffith says:

    The real hero of this story is Spencer Bennington, a teacher who had the time and heart to follow his calling. A teacher who was not micromanaged by those who have never taught. Unfortunately, there is a trend supported by both major parties to diminish public education as we know it.

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