“It’s much stronger than you, and it will win.”
An audience of about 100 heard heart wrenching comments like that from families who have struggled with and lost loved ones to opioid addiction during a free screening of the documentary “Chasing the Dragon: The Life of an Opiate Addict.”
The film, developed by the FBI and the DEA, is aimed at educating students and young adults on the growing epidemic of prescription drug and heroin abuse. The screening was held Tuesday night at Briar Woods High School and was followed by a panel discussion with some of the people on the front lines of fighting the epidemic in Loudoun County and surrounding communities. The discussion was moderated by NBC-4 reporter Julie Carey.
Taking questions from Carey and audience members, Dana J. Boente, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, painted a somber picture of the seriousness of opioid abuse. He said its hold on users is worst than anything he saw during the crack cocaine epidemic in the 1980s.
“If you overdose on cocaine, meth, alcohol, you’ll get a second chance. But heroin? People who continue to use it end up dying,” he said.
Boente later added that the law enforcement, mental health and education communities are working hard to inform the public of the severity of the issue. “I hate to rain on the parade, but I’m very concerned that we haven’t seen the worst of this. If you don’t know someone who’s had an addiction problem, you will,” he said.
While several panelists noted some of the resources that are available to help addicts recover, Lt. James A. Cox III, supervisor of Organized Crime and Narcotics Division of the Fairfax County Police Department, said there are still serious shortfalls.
Just three days ago, he arrested a 19-year-old who wanted to go to rehab and he had medical insurance to cover the cost. “But there was no bed available. … So I tell the detective, make the arrest because at that point, that’s the only way I’m going to save this kid’s life. That’s what we’re up against.”
Audience member Peter Rush, a Leesburg resident who said his daughter is a recovering heroin addict, asked what it takes to make treatment “stick.” He noted that three addicts interviewed in the “Chasing the Dragon” movie relapsed and one overdosed and died months after filming of the documentary. “What do we do about treatment that actually works?”
Panelist Nick Yacoub, who described himself as an addict in long-term recovery, stressed the importance of addicts to surround themselves with others in recovery and to help others get treatment.
“For me, it was going out there trying to help other people and surrounding yourself with people in recovery because it got me out of my selfish nature. The disease is inherently selfish,” he said.
Todd A. Wills, special populations service coordinator for Loudoun County Mental Health, told the audience that treatment works when it is multifaceted and includes the addict’s family members and even treatment for psychiatric conditions. “You basically create a support network and those are the treatments that work,” he added.
Wills stressed that the county will help cover the costs of residential treatment and detox programs for families who do not have health insurance or cannot otherwise afford it. Go to loudoun.gov/mentalhealth for details.
From the audience, a visibly frustrated Leesburg Town Councilmember Marty Martinez said he was disappointed that every seat in the auditorium wasn’t filled. “We need to treat this like an epidemic,” he said. “Do we need to scare these parents? I think we do.”
In response, Yacoub said the solution is reversing the stigma connected to talking about addiction. Many families are too timid to admit a loved one needs help. “As long as people are looking at addiction as a moral failing [instead of a disease], we’re never going to win this thing.”
The screening and panel discussion was held as part of the Department of Justice’s National Opioid and Heroin Awareness Week. Also on the panel were Loudoun Sheriff Michael L. Chapman; Karl C. Colder, Special Agent in Charge of the DEA’s Washington Field Division; and Jennifer Wall, Supervisor of Student Assistance Services at Loudoun County Public Schools.