Washington County Judge Dan Emge speaks to the audience at a showing of “Chasing The Dragon: The Life of an Opiate Addict” at NCHS on Tuesday, January 30. Following the film, Emge participated in a panel discussion with Probation Officer Maggie Bradac, Dr. Ginger Fewell, States Attorney Dan Bronke and Public Defender Dennis Hatch.
The Life (And Death) Of An Opiate Addict
By Alex Haglund
“You will die. Your friends, your family, they will find you like that and they will live with that image…for the rest of their lives.”
The quote above was about opiates and heroin and came from one of the accounts in “Chasing The Dragon: The Life of an Opiate Addict”. The film was shown at Nashville Community High School on the evening of Tuesday, January 30, and the subject matter was not cheerful, but given the heroin and opiate epidemic in this country, it is very, very important.
Also underscoring that importance was a panel present at NCHS for a question and answer session following the screening of the film. Those on the panel were Washington County Judge Dan Emge, Probation Officer Maggie Bradac, Dr. Ginger Fewell of Washington County Hospital, State’s Attorney Dan Bronke and Public Defender Dennis Hatch (who has previously served as a judge and a prosecutor).
“Chasing The Dragon”
Story after story of heartaches, heartbreaks and losses was the main theme of “Chasing the Dragon”, which was produced by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Some of the subjects covered were:
• Friends or a crowd and its role in introducing or fostering addictions. Some of those mentioned in the video who started their addication with good people or family around them migrated to crowds of other addicts, particularly if they made the jump from prescription opiates to heroin.
• Addictions starting with pills and legitimate prescriptions, then progressing to heroin.
“There’s absolutely no difference in my mind,“ one user said, in an interview from prison, “between a heroin addict and a pill addict.”
“It doesn’t have to be from a drug dealer,” said another, “it might be right there in your own house.”
• The depths of addiction. It’s an illness, and no matter a person’s accomplishments, their grades, their work ethic – an addict loses all control where their drug is concerned.
One story from the film described maggots crawling in the abcesses in one addict’s leg.
“My daughter worked at a strip club,” said one addict’s mother. “My little girl degraded herself, just to get that.”
• Tolerance and dependency – over time, the amount of the drug needed to get high grows higher and higher. Eventually, the addict is just taking the drug to avoid withdrawal pains or to stop feeling sick.
“I’m not even getting high,” one longtime addict stated. “I’m just trying to get up out of bed.”
According to the film, opiate addicts in withdrawal experience something akin to full body, extreme muscle pain or cramps.
“You would probably rather be dead,” said one addict.
“I was so weak I couldn’t even move,” said another.
And, “I wouldn’t wish that feeling on my worst enemy,” stated another.
• Death. It will happen with opiates (A fact that shouldn’t be a surprise here, where opioid overdoses are increasingly common).
One mother, who was herself an addict, had her daughter get arrested acquiring pills for her. Later, the daughter also got addicted and then, died due to an overdose.
“At her funeral,” the mother said, “almost all of her friends were high.”
“I put my own daughter in jail to stop her from this,” said another mother relaying her story. Later, the daughter, who had been clean for seven months, was released from jail. Just six days later, she relapsed and died with a needle in her arm.
“I was in my kitchen, cooking dinner,” the mother stated. “I had no idea, just 17 steps up, this was happening.”
There was a lot of questions, and while many in the audience expressed anger, outrage or frustration at the overall situation, the overall attitude was a proactive one – what can we, as a community, do to stop or slow this problem?
Asking almost that exact question, on behalf of his church and the faith community as a whole, was Rev. Roger Drinnan, of Olive Branch Lutheran Church.
Judge Emge stated that outside of the courts, and particularly after initial cleanup and treatment, addicts can really use help with the follow through.
As a community, we can do things to help addicts to get to outpatient treatment, especially the intensive treatment right after they complete their inpatient therapy, and to keep them from being bored when they’re not in treatment.
“When they come out of treatment,” Bronke said, “that’s when people really need that help. You fill up there day, and there’s no guarantees, but maybe you can help them do something better in their lives.”
Helping get people to treatment and helping them keep busy can happen at any time, but in the longer term, Emge said, an issue is that there isn’t currently a 12-step program available in the county.
When people are coming into the hospital, showing signs of addiction and have made up their minds that they want to seek help, “the best time to help them is right now,” Bronke said.
“There’s nothing in-county though. If you need to send someone to some kind of place, you have to send them to Belleville or Mt. Vernon.”
Fewell told those present that while doctors are changing their methods, and the guidelines and oversight imposed on doctors has changed as well, in many cases, these changes were contrary to doctors’ training and experience.
She continued, saying that her advice for patients would be to be proactive and cautious themselves, and if they did take a prescription opiate painkiller, that they should watch themselves for any signs that “you might be taking the drug for anything other than pain management.”
In the end, this is the difficult position doctors are in, helping people with very real pain utilize opioids as they are meant to be used, to help manage chronic or severe pain on one hand, versus taking steps to keep pain management from becoming addiction on the other.
Some members of the audience had other questions for Fewell about changes in how doctors prescribe and whether or not doctors were seeing penalties for overprescribing.
“I don’t know if doctors are being put in jail,” Fewell said, “but they are losing their licenses.” Overall though, Fewell stated that doctors were not seeing much in the way of penalties.
Hatch told the audience a story about a case he was involved in about 20 years ago, as a prosecutor. Undercover evidence had been acquired which led to the conviction of a metro east doctor on 34 counts for prescribing opiates on demand for patients…or customers. While the docotor was convicted, Hatch said that because of his advanced age, he was not sentenced to any time in jail.
Emge, Bronke and Hatch all suggested that a stay in jail, that is, being arrested, could be a good thing for addicts. Being taken off the streets, away from friends and dealers, away from the drugs, might be the start of things getting turned around. There also seems to be an agreement between these three representatives of the Washington County judicial system that if an addict is in the jail, they won’t get out, or will have a very difficult time getting bail, if they don’t have a bed to go to at a rehabilitation facility. The reason? It’s safer inside than out.
Emge did state though, that just because someone was locked up while awaiting treatment, he did not believe that a sentence to prison, the department of corrections, was necessarily a good thing.
While an arrest and a stay in the county jail might be a turning point that an addict needs to get their life back on track, “the people who go to prison who are addicts – very, very, very rarely do they get the help that they need if they don’t want it.”
“Prison’s got it’s place, for violent offenders and certain other types of criminals,” Emge stated, “but for these people who are addicts, it’s just not the answer.”
Hatch did say that this was not the same opioid problems that the country saw in the 70s or the 90s, and he pointed his finger squarely at the pharmaceuticals industry.
He detailed a story, one which had been in the national news lately, where pharmaceutical companies were shipping something on the order of half-a-million pills to a little West Virginia town roughly the size of Nashville. The FBI and DEA started to stop shipments headed there, but the companies got a congressman to change the laws so that they couldn’t stop those shipments.
“We (Hatch pointed to himself and the others on stage) focus on where we are, on our community. But when you see this stuff…it all started more than ten years ago, when those companies saw what a goldmine they had.”
Opioid abuse in the 70’s Hatch said, “the guy you saw was on skid row, he’s a bum. Now, it might be a high school student with a football injury.”
“They’re your kids, our kids, neighbors’ kids,” Hatch said. “They’re regular people and they need help.”
“I think if we solve the prescription drug problem,” Emge agreed, “we solve the heroin problem.”
While changing the prescribing landscape and limiting the pharmaceutical industry’s influence on the law was important, and in the grander scheme of things, the only way to combat this on a nation-wide scale, locally, “the key to all of this is to get ahead of the game,” Emge said, “to keep people from ever using prescription opioids or heroin.”
“On a community level,” he said, “we need to focus on keeping people from getting addicted.”
“Chasing the Dragon: The Life of an Opiate Addict” can be found online on YouTube and is free to watch. It can be found at https://youtu.be/lqdmWRExOkQ and a link has been posted to The Nashville News Facebook page as well.
The panel discussion following the movie was broadcast by The Nashville News as a “Facebook Live” video. It can be found on our Facebook page and at nash-news.com/school/panel-discussion-following-chasing-dragon
If you are interested in hearing more about what these members of the community had to say, and hearing it from their mouths, please watch the video.
Finally, Emge was asked if he would be able to do other presentations or speak in other parts of the county and community.
“I’ll speak to anyone that will listen,” Emge said. Given that a number of these films and panel discussions have been held, it is likely Emge would not be the only panel member willing to speak again. He can be reached at the Washington County Courthouse line at (618) 327-4800, ext. 130.