After getting shot in the leg at age 18 during a gang fight in Tacoma, Washington, Raymond Power found relief in OxyContin and Percocet.
When the prescription painkillers became too expensive, he found a cheaper alternative: heroin.
I started doing heroin at maybe 19, 20 – and they’re starting at 13, 14 these days.
Raymond Power, father of four
“It used to be pills was the main drug and now everybody’s doing heroin – they’re smoking it, shooting it,” said Power, now a 30-year-old college student and father of four. “It’s sad out here – and they’re getting younger and younger and younger. I started doing heroin at maybe 19, 20 – and they’re starting at 13, 14 these days.”
With drug overdoses at a record high, President Barack Obama on Tuesday stepped up the fight against what many experts now say is an epidemic.
He urged Congress to spend $1.1 billion over the next two years for more treatment for drug addicts, proposing that most of the money go to states to help them expand access. And he said he wanted people enrolled in state Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program to be covered for drug treatment, just as they were now for medical and surgical procedures.
Speaking at the National Prescription Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit in Atlanta, Obama said drug addiction must be treated as a public health issue, not just a criminal justice issue. And he said that was now easier to do politically as addiction took a toll on Americans of all stripes, including the young and old and residents of both urban and rural areas.
“This is affecting everybody,” Obama said.
More than 47,000 Americans died from overdoses of heroin and prescription painkillers in 2014, a 7 percent increase in just one year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In the Pacific Northwest, overdoses killed an average of 153 people each month in Washington state, Idaho, Oregon and Alaska in 2014. Washington state had the most deaths in the region, with 979 for the year.
We know that drug overdose deaths are the leading cause of injury in the United States, taking more lives than car crashes.
Susan Johnson, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
“We know that drug overdose deaths are the leading cause of injury in the United States, taking more lives than car crashes,” Susan Johnson, regional director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in Seattle, said earlier this month in a conference call with reporters.
While Obama is promising to make his plan a top priority in his last year as president, the issue is showing signs of uniting Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill, never an easy trick in an election year.
On March 10, the Senate voted 94-1 to pass a broad drug treatment and prevention bill. The vote came after senators from both red and blue states complained that drug addiction rates had soared across the country, necessitating a quick response.
Critics said the bill did not go far enough because the Senate rejected a proposal to spend an additional $600 million to pay for programs authorized by the legislation. Proponents said it represented a good starting point for Congress, though the House of Representatives has yet to take up the legislation.
In a speech on the Senate floor earlier this month, Washington state Democratic Sen. Patty Murray said the drug crisis had resulted in “a rare moment of bipartisan agreement” in the Senate, giving lawmakers a chance to strengthen the nation’s mental health system.
Murray has emerged as a key player in the debate, using her perch as the top-ranked Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to elevate the issue. On Tuesday, she called Obama’s plan a “strong step” forward.
In her speech, Murray told the story of Penny LeGate, a former television news anchor in Seattle who lost her daughter Marah Williams to OxyContin and heroin abuse.
Marah died of a heroin overdose when she was just 19 years old, in the basement of her family home. This is a parent’s worst nightmare.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
“Marah died of a heroin overdose when she was just 19 years old, in the basement of her family home,” Murray told her colleagues. “This is a parent’s worst nightmare.”
Murray and Washington state Democratic Rep. Derek Kilmer, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, want to make it easier for addicts to get naloxone, a medication that can help prevent opioid overdoses from becoming fatal.
Last month, Kilmer said “more resources are desperately needed” in Washington state, particularly in rural communities such as the Olympic Peninsula. He said the overdose death rate in rural Clallam County was twice that of the state as a whole.
Michael Botticelli, the White House director of national drug control policy, told reporters Monday that Obama’s $1.1 billion budget plan for 2017 would allow the federal government to pay for treatment for tens of thousands of additional addicts. In December, Congress authorized spending $400 million this year.
Obama said the federal government would rely on help from the private sector and universities to fight the epidemic. He said that more than 60 medical schools across the country would require students to take “prescriber education” classes to help them properly manage chronic pain, beginning this fall.
At the Atlanta summit, the president called addiction a “heartbreaking” issue that’s costing lives and devastating communities across the country.
But he said: “I’m very optimistic that we can solve it.”
Power, who grew up on the streets, said his road to addiction began when he got into a fistfight in Tacoma’s Eastside neighborhood and somebody jumped out of the bushes and shot him. He said the prescription painkillers helped a lot at first.
“But once it was time to get off them, I realized I was hooked,” Power said. “I just kind of hit rock bottom. And then somebody introduced me to heroin – and that was it.”
He said he quit using heroin when he enrolled in a methadone program run by the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department. He landed at Bates Technical College in Tacoma, where he studied electrical engineering. But he said he’d found his passion and now wanted to study social work at the Tacoma campus of Evergreen State College, hoping to get a job where he could work with kids and keep them off the streets.
Power said Obama’s plan came late but was still a good one that could help Tacoma.
“I wish he would have done it years ago,” he said. “We’ve been having a real problem. . . . I’ve got four kids, and my oldest is 9. And you know, I just want them to have a good life and not have to see so much drama out here.”