A long-time leader in addiction recovery talks about the spike in heroin overdoses nationally and the history of the drug in Baltimore.
The death of Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman at age 46 – perhaps the greatest actor of his generation – because of a heroin overdose earlier in February has shed light on the most recent resurgence of the drug and a nationwide rise in heroin overdoses.
The rise in heroin use corresponds to a decrease in the use of much more expensive illegally obtained pharmaceutical opioids used primarily as painkillers (80 milligrams of an opioid like OxyContin can cost about $80 on the street compared to a packet of heroin at a cost of $6 to $10).
Perhaps one of the most unlikely states in the minds of many, Vermont, has seen a 770 percent rise in people seeking treatment for opioid addiction since 2000 and four out of five new heroin users in the state initially abused painkillers according to health officials. Heroin use in Vermont has become so dire the governor Peter Shumlin devoted his most recent State of the State address in January to encourage public debate on drug abuse and addiction there.
And in Maryland health officials report in the first seven months of 2012, a15 percent drop in pharmaceutical opioid overdoses was accompanied by a 41 percent increase in heroin overdoses.
Of course, the heroin scourge is no stranger to Baltimore. In fact, despite the ebb and flow of heroin use nationally over the years, Baltimore has historically and accurately been known as a “heroin town.”
“Baltimore’s drug of choice is heroin,” said Israel Cason, founder and CEO of I Can’t – We Can (ICWC), a spiritually based drug recovery program headquartered in Park Heights in Northwest Baltimore.
Cason, who founded ICWC in 1997 after a 30-year stint as a heroin addict, says the most recent national spike in heroin use and overdoses is connected to the U.S. war in Afghanistan.
“The only product they (Afghanistan) have is opium. They have tons of heroin just waiting to get into the country,” said Cason. According to a United Nations report heroin production in Afghanistan increased from 185 tons in 2001when the war began to 5,800 in 2011.
Cason also warns the new influx of the drug in America could contribute to even more heroin use and overdoses. “They (drug users) get some real heroin and that’s when you get a lot of deaths,” said Cason, who recalled a particularly virulent surge of heroin overdoses in Baltimore years ago.
“In East Baltimore they had a dealer named Junior Bunk. They had a whole ward at Johns Hopkins Hospital called the Junior Bunk ward for people who suffered from the effects of using his dope,” Cason said.
Like the thousands of addicts that have sought Cason’s help over the years, he reached his personal low-point during his 30-year odyssey of addiction around 1995.
“I was reduced all the way down to a bum. I lived in an abandoned car for three years,” recalled Cason whose “home,” which sat in an empty lot near the corner of Gwynn Oak Ave. and Liberty Heights, was used by someone as a toilet.
“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Cason said. Not long after that humiliating incident a relative encouraged Cason to travel to Philadelphia and enroll in the “Stop and Surrender,” recovery program in 1996. Back in Baltimore, he established ICWC in 1997 bringing the knowledge he acquired in Philadelphia back to his drug-addicted friends in his hometown.
“I had to teach them what I had learned,” Cason said. “It taught me how to live as I taught them how to live,” he added. To date, Cason says he has helped more than 20,000 people recover from the disease of addiction, which has been pervasive in Baltimore for generations.
“Baltimore is a rich town with arts and music…and a lot of the musicians did heroin,” Cason said. “We only had one place to go to listen to them and that’s down on the Avenue (Pennsylvania Avenue). So, people went on the Avenue and that became the heroin capital…that was our culture,” he added.
The city’s drug culture remains entrenched and in many ways ubiquitous.
“If you’re not infected you are still effected,” said Cason of the impact the disease of addiction has on everyone.
“It’s going to affect you whether you like it or not, we’re all connected. The best thing to do is raise them up.”