When Colleen Richards said goodbye to her daughter before she boarded a Florida-bound plane on her way to rehab, she took a good last look at her. In Mykel, she saw an addict.
Unkempt hair. Missing teeth. Skin and bones.
“I felt sad,” she says. “My heart was breaking. I was thinking, ‘I don’t even know you.’”
But in a way, Colleen adds, she hasn’t really known Mykel since she became addicted to prescribed opioids at the age of fourteen.
And then, this past June Mykel did the unthinkable—she walked into the police station in her hometown, Newark, Ohio, turned over her drugs, and asked to be placed in rehab. She was greeted with open arms and police officers ready to help.
Mykel was one of the first participants in a program called the Newark Addiction Recovery Initiative (NARI), a program pioneered by the Gloucester, Massachusetts, police department in 2015 and supported by a national network of 151 police departments in 28 states who are trying the same thing in varying degrees.
NARI is a radical approach, and its acceptance by the Newark community—a politically red city in a red county—underscores how determined and desperate people are to find a solution to a drug epidemic many fear could get worse.
Last year, there were 3,050 overdose deaths in Ohio—about 8 per day.
In this part of the country, there’s a fear that things could get worse. In recent months Huntington, West Virginia, and Cincinnati, Ohio, have had mass overdoses, the result of heroin laced with carfentanil, a sedative used to tranquilize elephants.
But since June, over thirty people have walked into Newark’s police station and asked for help. The man who implemented the program, police Chief Barry Connell, has already received recognition by way of an invite to the White House to speak about his department’s new initiative and to drum up support for addressing the current epidemic.
Colleen Richards just wants her daughter back, and tomorrow she will pick her up from the airport after over two months in rehab. She seems a little tired, a little anxious, but when she thinks about tomorrow, Colleen beams. “I’m excited because I get to meet a new person. An adult that’s clean.”
When she first recognized Mykel’s addiction more than a decade ago, Colleen says that she felt like she was alone in the fight, that there wasn’t support, and that addicts were being treated like pariahs.
She did what she had to do. When she knew she was using, Colleen would track her down at the homes of drug dealers.
“I’ve been places most people wouldn’t go. Everybody is somebody’s child, but maybe they don’t have a parent who can stand up or who knows how to stand up for them. I will. I’m a scrapper.”
She thinks there’s been a marked shift in how some are thinking about addiction, but there’s still much work to do. In this election year, she says, politicians should recognize the depth of the problem and fund it properly.
Perhaps the most promising Federal legislation, the bi-partisan Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), will address the opioid epidemic through programs targeting prevention, treatment, recovery, enforcement, justice reform measures, and overdose reversal. It was signed by President Obama on July 22. But while CARA approves spending on the crisis, it doesn’t add any more money to the fight.
CARA is being held up by politics. A continuing resolution from the Senate will keep the government funded through December 9th and includes about $37 million in funding for CARA, but nothing close to what’s need to fully fund the law. Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire has called for $600 million in immediate funding to address the crisis.
Colleen would like to see “rehab and real sober living. Give addicts a place to get in and learn how to deal with their problems because most addicts are dual diagnosed. Mental health and addiction go together like salt and pepper, and we can’t arrest away the problem.”
She adds, “I don’t think the number of addicts has changed, it’s just that the heroin is cheap and it’s shaking the earth and they’re coming out.”
Right now, Colleen says with a sigh, “I feel like I know as many addicts as I do normal people.”
She corrects herself, “But addicts are normal people. They’re somebody’s kids.”