The heroine began to rewire and take control of Will’s brain in the early 2000s, when he was 40 years old.
“Back in the day, if you used drugs, people didn’t want anything to do with you,” Will recalls. “People have abandoned me.”
Will has lost almost everything: his job, his driver’s license, his car, his marriage and his house. He found enough temporary work to pay rent for a room, eat in soup kitchens, and steal and resell goods for cash.
“Feed that addiction,” he says. “Feed this monster.”
We only use Will’s first name because future owners or employers may not take it depending on his record.
The game changer
One morning, almost three years ago, with no heroin and no money to buy heroin, Will went into withdrawal. This former basketball player, once in great shape, dragged himself down the street in search of a deal. He had crack that he could sell. The buyer was an undercover cop.
“It was the game changer,” Will says.
Instead of jail, Will was sent to a daily probation program in Massachusetts called Community correctional services. It’s a sign of what has changed in the 50 years since President Richard Nixon declared war on drugs. He ended up targeting people with black or brown skin, like Will.
“In the early 1970s, when this so-called war on drugs was launched, it really worked much more like a war on drug addicts,” says Dr Stephen Taylor, an addiction psychiatrist in Birmingham, Alabama.
The Massachusetts program was started 25 years ago to address prison overcrowding. But attitudes towards drug addicts were also beginning to change.
“There was a pivot towards this idea of substance use disorder as an illness rather than just unwillingness,” says Vin Lorenti, director of community corrections for the Massachusetts Probation Service.
From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday to Friday, Will was scheduled to attend counseling and other elements of drug treatment. He has taken courses in anger management, problem solving and vocational training.
Massachusetts has 18 such centers. Today, three-quarters of those sent to Massachusetts community corrections have a history of substance abuse. Since they live at home, the cost is a fraction of the incarceration. And only about half of the people in this program reoffend, compared to those released from prison.
Gaps and disparities
Marc Levin of the Council on Criminal Justice says most states have an alternative route for drug addicts accused of minor offenses. There is police services who offer immediate placement in drug addiction treatment, drug courts and other community options like the one Will entered. But while some drug addicts are offered treatment instead of punishment for minor offenses, Levin says, others are still sent to jail.
“We really need to step on the accelerator when it comes to these alternatives,” says Levin, who heads policy for the council. “They’re on the books across the country, but when you really look at usage, especially in rural areas, that’s where you really see the gaps and the disparities.”
Lorenti says the war on drugs always casts a shadow over programs that direct drug-addicted offenders to treatment.
“Some people might think ‘oh, well, that’s being gentle with crime’,” Lorenti said. “But if you know someone who suffers from a substance use disorder, you know that pursuing your recovery is not easy or sweet.”
Will came out of community corrections trained for a job that aims to help addicts get through this struggle. He’s a recovery coach. Will walks the streets buying drugs, handing out Narcan and safe drug use pamphlets, helping people sign up for drug treatment, taking clients to AA meetings and connecting them. with lawyers or medical attention if needed.
“It’s an everyday battle and challenge,” Will says, “but it’s rewarding.”
Processed and controlled
Will works in an office at the Lynn Community Health Center in North Boston. It’s stocked with donated clothes, shoes, diapers, backpacks, and toiletries. There are drawers of condoms – and syringes. Providing clean medicines is still illegal in some communities but is encouraged by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
Health center CEO Dr Kiame Mahaniah hired his first recovery trainers just a few years ago, paying them with grants.
“It’s very recent that people with lived experience are valued as the most important member of the team because of that lived experience,” he says. “Now it’s just unimaginable to think that we would be able to get the job done without recovery coaches. “
And the drugs are transforming the treatment of those like Will who are addicted to opioids.
“Addiction can be treated and controlled,” says Taylor, who is a board member of the American Society of Addiction Medicine. “The results of providing people with drug treatment are roughly similar to those of people being treated for other chronic conditions. “
Numerous studies prove that drugs prescribed to treat opioid dependence prevent overdoses and save lives. Mahaniah credits these drugs for relieving symptoms of addiction so that patients can focus on rebuilding their lives.
“Compared to 40 years ago, the landscape difference is incredible,” he says.
“Sky is the limit”
Will is on methadone, the oldest of the three approved drugs. He must go to a designated methadone clinic to receive his dose. Will says he still feels rejected by some people who see him there or know he has used heroin for many years.
“A lot of people are very critical,” he says. “They like to say, ‘This person is not going to be of any use.’ If you don’t give someone a chance, how are they going to be successful in life? “
Will, now 56, says he’s grateful to the people who tried his luck – and to his church, which he calls the foundation of his two-year recovery. He is gradually cutting back on methadone and plans to continue his recovery without it by the end of the summer. He bought a car. And he’s signed up for classes this fall, plus addiction recovery training so he can help others get back to healthy, productive lives.
“I feel happy where I am now,” he says. “I just pray to God that I can keep doing this for a while. The sky is the limit.”