Pensacola, Florida
Saturday December 16th 2017

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Heroin Crisis Hits Home

By Rick Outzen

On Oct. 16, President Donald Trump hinted he would soon deliver an emergency declaration to combat the nation’s ballooning opioid crisis.

Faced with soaring numbers of overdoses of prescription drugs, heroin and the synthetic opioid fentanyl, Gov. Rick Scott last spring beat Trump to the punch when he announced the opioid crisis as a public health emergency. The state received $27 million in federal funds to deal with the issue. Gov. Scott recently pledged to seek $50 million from the Legislature to deal with it.

When Florida cracked down on the prescription drug “pill mills” in 2011, lawmakers failed to realize that those addicted to Lortab, Percocet and other opiates would seek their highs elsewhere. Heroin overdoses jumped by 1,000 percent between 2007 and 2015.

In the First Judicial District, which stretches from Escambia to Walton County, heroin-related deaths were once rare. Only nine such deaths occurred from 2001-2013.  In 2014 alone, the medical examiner reported 12 heroin-related deaths. The next year, the deaths more than doubled to 28. The 2016 report hasn’t been completed, but the death toll for the first six months was 14.

“When they began shutting down the pill mills, people could no longer get their prescriptions,” Jake told Inweekly. “If you can’t get the pills, the only other thing out there is heroin.”

Jake, a recovering heroin addict, agreed to talk with Inweekly about the heroin abuse in the Pensacola area under the condition the paper would not use his real name.

“Heroin’s getting more available. Within the next five years, I promise you will see an epidemic of heroin in Pensacola, Florida,” he said.  “It’s going to come here with a vengeance because the market’s going to be wide open.”

Brett Douglas, also a recovering addict, wrote a memoir, “American Drug Addict,” about his life battling drugs.

“In all of my life, I never saw heroin in Pensacola, and as soon as the pill mills got closed in South Florida, it just seemed like overnight it was everywhere,” he said in an interview on “Pensacola Speaks.” “I’ve had 10 friends die of overdoses. It’s just like everything got real ugly real fast, and not just for me but for everyone I know. Everyone that I ran with right now is either in prison or dead. It’s a bad thing.”

That ‘Feel Good’ Feeling
Jake’s opioid addiction began when his dentist prescribed Percocet after he had a tooth pulled. He was 30-years-old and had never taken a narcotic, but within 18 months he was using heroin.

“Heck, it felt pretty good,” he said. “You take a Percocet, and I guess if your body’s not used to a narcotic, it releases endorphins that give you a good feeling. Well, as time goes by, your tooth gets better, you go back to work, and you miss that feeling again.”

A co-worker offered him a Lortab. Jake said, “Well there goes that ‘feel good’ feeling again, but it also gives you a euphoric feeling that you can work harder, you can work faster.”

Jake became a functioning drug addict. He said, “I learned through my recovery that this is a chemical imbalance in my body, but when you’re lame and when you’re young, you don’t understand chemical imbalances in your body. You know that when you take a drug, it makes you feel better, let’s take more.”

He added, “You can go to work. You can live your life. You don’t have it; you can’t go to work. Your mind is set on one thing, finding drugs to get better. ”

When he hurt his back, his body had built up such a resistance that low-dose medications didn’t relieve his pain. A pain management doctor prescribed Lortab, but the pills didn’t help. He found another doctor who wrote prescriptions for morphine sulfate and Oxycodone.

However, the doctors began to worry about having federal and state officials review their prescriptions and told him that he didn’t need the medicine any longer, according to Jake.

“You can’t get cut off a narcotic like that after you’ve been taking it for several years,” he said. “It’s an easy slope to slip down to heroin.”

Jake described the slope, “You hurt your back and your doctor prescribes you Percocets for four months. Then one day your doctor says, ‘Oh, you’re good. You don’t need them anymore.’

“Well, then you’re going to wake up with ‘man, I’m sore.’ You’re throwing up. You’ve got diarrhea. What is going on? Well, then you run up on somebody who gives you a Lortab. Or you find a spare one in your closet or a drawer. You take it. All of a sudden you feel better. The sickness goes away.

“You’re functioning again. You can go to work. You can live your life. You don’t have it; you can’t go to work. Your mind is set on one thing, finding drugs to get better.”

Jake said heroin became the only way to stop the sickness caused by withdrawals.

“Heroin just won’t let you be sick,” he told Inweekly. “When I was on heroin, I started off probably doing a bundle a week, which is 10 bags of heroin, but by the time I was done, I was doing about six bags a day.”

He explained, “You’re talking 150 bucks a day. Okay, that’s every day, seven days a week. Not many people make $1,000 a week in a paycheck.”

Jake would do anything to find the money for his next fix, including taking $600 of his wife’s Christmas money.

“Most addicts have shit on everybody around them,” he said. “It’s not because we want to hurt anybody. You don’t want to steal. It’s not who I am, but my God, it was either that or be dope sick and not make it to work that day. Couldn’t do that. I had to work.”

Then Jake began selling heroin to feed his addiction.

“Here in Pensacola let’s say you buy a bundle for $175, that’s 10 bags. You sell them for 25 apiece. That’s $250. Okay, you get three bags for yourself. You sold seven. That’s the way you keep it going,” he said.

“Then after a month or two those three bags aren’t enough,” Jake said. “You’ve got to do five bags a day.”

The stamps on the bags told the heroin addicts how potent the dope was. He said, “Where I’m from you have one stamp that would be the Red Bandito. Then you have another one that is a Blue Corvette. Well, you knew the Blue Corvette was a really, really strong dose so you wouldn’t have to do all of it to get high. If you were to do a whole bag of the Blue ‘Vet, you die.”

Jake explained the heroin deaths weren’t necessarily bad for the big-time dealers. Deaths drove sales upward.

“I’ve heard of dealers that would stick Fentanyl in a patch into a bag of heroin and tell the guy that’s swinging it for him to give it somebody they don’t like, who maybe shorted him all the time,” he said. “The dealer knew when the addict shoots it he’s going to die, and what that does is increase his sales 150 percent for the next 30 days.”

Jake explained, “The word on the street would be ‘Man, that dude did a bag of dope. It was so good he died. Wow. What was it?’”

His recovery began when his boss told him to seek help, or he would lose his job. He went to see Dr. Robert Althar.

Hope for Addicts
“Dr. Althar is probably one of the best doctors I’ve been around in 40 years,” Jake said. “Not only does he have an insight on what he’s doing, but he has compassion for the people.”

He continued, “Yes, we are drug addicts, and yes, we scammed people all our lives, and yes, we’re not proud of what we’ve ever done, trust me.”

Dr. Robert Althar, along with Dr. Terry Ptacek, runs the medication-assisted treatment program at the Summit Group, a specialty practice of Lakeview Center.

“What happens is that patients may start taking opioids when they’re not supposed to because it gives them euphoria,” Dr. Althar told Inweekly. “Eventually they take it only to avoid opiate withdrawal which is 10 times worse than the worse flu you ever had.”

He described opiate addiction as a disease.  “In 2017, we know it’s a disease like diabetes or hypertension. Often it’s inherited, they have family members who have had alcohol and drug addiction. These people inherited a genetic tendency to become addicted to substances, and we’re here to help them and save lives.”

The Summit Group offers a medication-assisted treatment program.

“We’re treating patients who are dependent on opioids, and it completely ruins their life,” said Dr. Althar. “They lose their families. They lose their house. They lose their job.  They can’t function in a normal society.”

He described the medication component. “We use a drug called buprenorphine, often known as Suboxone. The program lasts about a year because the end-result that we want to achieve is that the patient builds a purposeful life and that they understand the root cause of why they self-medicated. When that happens, their chance of a relapse goes way down.”

Jake called Suboxone the “true answer” to get off any opiate. For the past three years, he has taken three Suboxone pills daily.

“That’s what my doctor prescribes me, that’s what I take,” he said. “I live by it. I believe in it, and I hope that this gets to one person to get them to understand there is light at the end of the tunnel.”

This summer Lakeview and Summit Group launched a new grant-funded program to help low-income opioid users, State Targeted Opioid Program (STOP). Licensed Clinical Social Worker Dustin Perry has been appointed as the director of STOP.

STOP is open to any resident of Escambia or Santa Rosa counties who have been diagnosed with an opioid disorder and whose income is at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty line—the roughly equivalent of $18,000 annually for an individual or $37,000 annually for a family of four.

“Medication alone is very powerful, and psycho-social groups and therapy are also very powerful,” said Perry. “What the research has shown is the combination of the two provides some very powerful results even above and beyond what each of those is individually.”

He manages the counseling aspect of the treatment. “I coordinate the care with the counselors and ensuring that people are going to groups and working on repairing the family relationships, looking for employment and avoiding the ER seeking medications and teaching people how to stay clean without chasing drugs.”

Dr. Althar also stressed the need for both medication and counseling. When the patients come to the Suboxone Clinic, they are in withdrawals.

“I treat them with buprenorphine and detox them in the office in over a matter of three or four hours,” he said. “By the time they leave the office, they are no longer in withdrawal. They don’t feel anything but normal. And over the course of treatment, fairly early on, their thinking clears.”

The patients begin to have emotions again. They no longer crave drugs but need to repair their relationships.

“Dr. Althar and the buprenorphine handle the addiction piece so the counselors and the clinical staff gets to come in and say, ‘All right, now that you woke up and you don’t have to worry about that, what can you do with your day? How can you repair your relationships?’” explained Perry.  “The clinical staff encourages them to work on all aspects of their lives, so their families improve, and their overall health improves.”

Jake hopes more heroin and opiate addicts would seek help at the Summit Group and take advantage of STOP.

“Dr. Althar has made it so simple for these people that he’s gotten through the system,” said Jake. “He’s gotten a free place where you can go. I can’t understand. Yes, there are hoops you may have to jump through like having to go down there maybe every day to get your dose, but let me tell you something, I’d much rather get up, go down there and get my dose for one day or two days than go back where I was.”

He said, “I have my life back. See, when you are in this world you have no life. Your life belongs to heroin and only that. You wake up thinking about it; you go to bed thinking about it. I don’t wake up thinking about it, and I don’t give a damn about it personally. I hope that this story can help one person.”

For information on the Summit Group, Lakeview and the STOP program, call 384-7643.