Today's Heroin Epidemic – How Did We Get Here?

As I sit here in Fiji following the Pacific Region Conference, I am so encouraged as I think of the heart and passion these 22 (or more!) Teen Challenge leaders have for the hurting across the Pacific Islands.  They are committed to making a difference.

This same spirit was with us in Rwanda, Africa where over 230 leaders gathered to consider how we might put hope within reach across Africa. Their passion and desire to put hope within reach was overwhelming. We also visited the Europe conference where we met with leaders truly committed to see God do something in their nations. Teen Challenge has a bright future as long as we stay close to our Mission.

Libby and I took a few days to rest after the conference and I’m reading the book “Dreamland” by Sam Quinones. It outlines the history of the pharmaceutical industry’s promotion of opiate use to medicate individuals with pain.  These companies spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the last 20 years convincing primary care doctors that prescribing hydrocodone and/or Oxycontin was the caring way to treat patients in pain. They downplayed the truth that these opiate prescriptions were highly addictive, especially if you remove the time-release feature of the pill. Individuals quickly learned to break the pill up, snort it or put it in water and shoot it up, thus getting an incredible high. Purdue and other pharmaceutical companies sold billions of these pills over the last 20 years and have made billions of dollars profit at America’s expense.

Primary care doctors were told that these new drugs were not addictive and that they owed their patients the right to be free of pain. Oxycontin and other derivatives of it are everywhere. Doctors gave everyone what they wanted by simply asking a question, “On a scale of one to ten, how badly do you hurt?”. I can only imagine how the drug addict responded to this question. All he has to say is “it hurts more” and he will get more.  Pill mills opened up everywhere under the name of pain management centers. Street sales of these pills were $1 per milligram.  Dealers traveled to every state that did not do medical checks on patients in order to get prescriptions filled to sell on the street, making three times the price of the prescription.

Doctors were prescribing  “medicine” to help people, how could it be bad? America bought the lie.

It seemed like everyone was using oxycontin of some kind. Every surgery, every sports injury, every back or hip pain were given oxycontin or oxycodone.  The number one user, over time, were white teenagers. This drug epidemic resulted from the legal distribution of medications that doctors said were safe. Now thousands are addicted and dying before the medical field is willing to take a serious look at the research. Oh, by the way, there was very little research to validate that oxycontin was not addictive.

So the new approach? Prescribe less.  The doctors got patients addicted and now are not giving them what they need in order to not have withdrawal symptoms and pain. What happens? It becomes the perfect market for black tar heroin.  Sam Quinones tracked the source of black tar heroin to Mexico. Illegal Mexican men & women were coming to major cities across America with black tar heroin to drive cars and deliver the drugs to those who called for it. They built an amazing system of “drugs on demand” and it worked. These drivers spoke little English and only had to deliver the small bags of heroin. They focused on sales at the door fronts of methadone clinics as well as recruited long-term addicts to find additional customers.  Once established, they branched out to sell primarily to white teens.  This industry grew across America and millions and millions of dollars were taken south across the border, leaving American teens addicted and dying from their addiction.

As a leader working in this field I am asking myself, “What could I have done more to help these kids who are using and abusing drugs?  What could we do as an organization to put hope within reach of these who, for whatever reason, believe they need a way out of their individual pain?” It’s hard to believe that this generation would have anything to do with heroin since they seem to have everything. Cell phones, cars, internet access, shopping centers everywhere, and/or discretionary monies given to them by their parents. How could they need relief from pain? What would drive them to make these kinds of risky decisions with their lives?

There are thousands of parents across America who now are looking in the mirror wondering what they could have done to prevent this. Their child is gone, their sweet little girl, their handsome son, gone forever. How tragic, how sad. Yet they don’t see how the prescription they got their child every month contributed to this tragedy. The pharmaceutical companies sold the primary care doctors a bill of goods, and the epidemic began. Now we are cleaning up the mess and America has more addicts than we have ever had.

What are we going to do about it? How can we respond to this need? Countries around the world are following suit to this American way of treating pain. When will they see the truth of the epidemic in their country?

The point I am getting out of this book is that we cannot always allow ourselves to believe what someone says is medical proof. We must see the true, proved, time-tested research on a subject before we change how we operate as an organization.

We can so easily be tempted to trust the media, one news report or even one book on the subject. Do we know the facts, do we know the truth and how will we react to the media and to public opinion?

Mission drift is a challenging subject as time passes. Worldwide, Teen Challenge has a 60-year track record of consistent care and consistent results. True biblical discipleship changes the life of the individual. We have always cared about the person, the addict. We have always been an organization that sees the potential in everyone who walks through the doors of our programs. We know that they can have a productive future if they will simply trust in the love and forgiveness of God.

Love for people, acceptance without judging, faith in an individual’s ability to change along with peer support are some of the keys to the success of Teen Challenge. We provide a holistic model of care that works. I meet beautiful individuals all over the world who tell me they are graduates of Teen Challenge.

May I suggest that we not just take the word of the pharmaceutical companies, the media or public opinion as we move forward? We need God’s wisdom and guidance as we press forward in our goal to put hope within reach of every addict.

We must stay true to the word of God and to the witness of His Spirit in our lives as leaders of Teen Challenge. We will determine the future of this organization, we own this responsibility. Let’s get it right.

Jerry Nance PhD

President

Global Teen Challenge

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