A Terrifying Enemy

In an earlier post, I mentioned a new book I had just become aware of — “Dopesick.” Embedded in that blog post is a video in which PBS NewsHour host, Judy Woodruff, interviewed the author, Beth Macy, a reporter for the Roanoke Times. I have only recently found time to begin reading the book.

“Dopesick” explores the origins and spread of the opioid epidemic from the extreme southwestern corner of Virginia all the way to the western suburbs of Washington D.C. It is a distance covering hundreds of miles traversed by I-81.

Macy introduces readers to the heartbreaking stories of alarmed physicians and community leaders, anguished mothers and fathers, and naive law enforcement officials who became first-hand witnesses of the carnage wrought by opioid addiction. From communities along the borders of West Virginia and Kentucky, reeling from the job losses caused by shuttered factories and closed coal mines, to the solidly middle class suburbs of Roanoke, Macy chronicles the tsunamis of opioid prescriptions inundating communities where no one had any idea just how addicting these drugs were. Until it was too late.

Purdue Pharma, everyone’s opioid epidemic whipping boy, fares badly in Macy’s story. And not without cause. Purdue cared far too much about its profits to exercise the care and responsibility it should have when its role in the epidemic of opioid addiction was plain for everyone to see. Plain, that is, for everyone except Purdue’s executives and lawyers.

Victims are everywhere in “Dopesick.” Macy introduces us to the lives of high- schoolers cut short by overdose death as well as their stunned and grieving parents, some of whom deserve medals for their courageous and effective campaign to hold Purdue Pharma accountable.

Macy also introduces us to the dealers who, sensing an expanding market, infiltrated some of the same communities — where opioid pills had already laid the groundwork for widespread addiction — to sell heroin to the addicted who no longer had access to the pills and discovered that heroin was a lot cheaper.

As I began Beth Macy’s book, I was not a newcomer to the existence or contours of the opioid epidemic. I know men and women whose lives have been ravaged by opioid addiction. I know men and women who are serving state prison sentences for selling heroin. I knew three men who died of heroin overdoses in the past 18 months. And I know a grieving mother and father of one of those men.

But upon reaching the halfway point in “Dopesick,” I felt something I had not experienced before. Maybe it was partly the result of looking at the body of a 26-year old man, with all the promise of life before him, but now dead from an overdose, laying in a casket during the family visitation hour at the funeral home a week ago. I felt terrified. Terrified of the awesome power of heroin to enslave and to destroy.

A few years ago, a man from the county just south of us shot two state police officers one night as they were coming off their shift. One of them died. The assassin fled into the depths of the Delaware State Forest, where he outwitted a massive manhunt for about three weeks. Finally he was apprehended and held in the county jail where we do some of our work. At trial, well more than a year later, he was convicted and sentenced to death. The law enforcement and justice system spared no expense in capturing this man and convicting him for his crime. As they should have.

We surely would have seen an even more massive effort to find and stop this man if he had gone on a more widespread shooting spree, coming out of the forest every night to take another life, and then retreating back into the shadows to await his next opportunity. What if he killed two or three dozen other citizens in our county? We would be terrified, staying inside and away from windows lest we become his next victim. And we would want him captured. Yesterday!

Perhaps this is an inaccurate or inept comparison, but this is how I am beginning to see the terrifying power of heroin and the victims it has claimed in the past year within 20 miles of where I live. I often feel we are still sleep-walking in the midst of a mortal danger that stalks victims from every community, every church and every socio-economic level of society.

Yes, I felt terrified today.

Not finished yet with the book, I don’t know if Ms. Macy will give me reason to shake off the terror I feel. My gut tells me the terror is justified and that we are a very long way from being able to breathe more easily.

Hampton Morgan