Since the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, the heroin epidemic that has seized the country has received a much-needed increase in publicity. However, the problem is still far from being controlled.
The heroin epidemic has claimed hundreds of lives already. While nothing can be done to bring them back or fill the void they left in our lives, my mother, Diane Spotts, says that their deaths, which include my cousin Zachary Len, can still help us fix this tragedy by helping each other.
"A person doesn’t realize how many people are left behind that have to face the loss of having that person there. I guess the only thing that we can all do is try to remember the good times with Zach and try to help others that are facing the devastating loss this illness creates in their lives," she says. "What happened to my nephew has made us all more aware of a serious problem that we never realized would result in his dying."
Within the past six months, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts have attributed 224 deaths to heroin. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick declared a statewide emergency on March 27 and has put $20 million toward helping fix this problem. Lieutenant Jim Albert of the Police Department in Holyoke says that heroin’s potent effects and accessibility keep its popularity high.
"The strongest drug of choice would be heroin. You could go right now to any one of eight to 10 places in Holyoke and probably be able to buy at street-level sales," he said.
The other factor keeping heroin prevalent is how lucrative selling it can be, and removed dealers are quickly replaced.
"You take out two and three will come in," Albert said. "You take out three and five will come in. It’s always going to be lucrative. The alternative is to be broke and fight for limited jobs. So here in the city of Holyoke a guy that’s going to make anywhere from $100 to $500 a day pushing drugs could be faced with making $100-$200 a week after taxes working a low level job."
Every bit of help the police can get makes a difference. The situation is serious enough that there are people who would rather be behind bars then on the streets. Francesca Forrest, who volunteers as a General Education Development Tutor for incarcerated women, has met people who find sanctuary in an unlikely place.
"A whole lot of the people who I’ve worked with are in for drug-related offenses," she says. "They don’t talk so much about why they’re in, but this I’ve gathered from what they’ve said themselves in passing and lots of people have said things, or a number of people have said things, like they’re actually glad they’re there because if they weren’t there they are afraid they’d be dead. In fact, just the other day that’s what someone said. One person was about to be released and the other one said no I’m happy to be right here. If I were out, I’d start using and then I’d be dead."
Sheralee Tershner is a professor of Neuroscience at Western New England University. She says new research has revealed that there is no simple cure to addiction. Heroin and other drugs are causing brain damage to the frontal lobe, which prevents a person from making the right decision.
"Frontal lobe, which is very important for our ability to make sound decisions, to keep our emotions out of our thought processes, to think ahead, to plan and to also correct our behavior if we do something that results in a negative consequence," Tershner said. "This frontal lobe shows damage after drug abuse, so the cells actually start showing some damage and you see a decrease in volume. What that means is now the addict no longer has the hardware, the brain areas that allow him to control his behavior. So when he has to make the decision do I go get high or do I go home to my family he can’t even soundly make that decision anymore.
Tershner also says that drug addiction isn’t a choice that reflects a person’s character, but a serious condition that needs to be treated.
"Drug addiction in the brain is not a moral issue at all; the person’s not bad. You can’t shake him and say stop using drugs similar to how you can’t shake someone with cancer and say stop having cancer. It’s a physiological brain disorder."