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September 20, 2018

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As heroin use by whites soars, parents urge gentler drug war

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Katherine Taylor / The New York Times

A photo of Courtney Griffin, who died of a heroin overdose in 2014, with her sister Shannon, left, and her mother, Pamela, in Newton, N.H., Sept. 20, 2015. The growing army of families of those lost to heroin are now using their influence, anger and grief to cushion the country’s approach to drugs, and prodding government to treat it not as a crime, but as a disease.

NEWTON, N.H. — When Courtney Griffin was using heroin, she lied, disappeared and stole from her parents to support her $400-a-day habit. Her family paid her debts, never filed a police report and kept her addiction secret — until she was found dead last year of an overdose.

At Courtney’s funeral, they decided to acknowledge the reality that redefined their lives: Their bright, beautiful daughter, just 20, who played the French horn in high school and dreamed of living in Hawaii, had been kicked out of the Marines for drugs. Eventually, she overdosed at her boyfriend’s grandmother’s house, where she died alone.

“When I was a kid, junkies were the worst,” Doug Griffin, 63, Courtney’s father, recalled in their comfortable home here in southeastern New Hampshire. “I used to have an office in New York City. I saw them.”

Noting that “junkies” is a word he would never use now, he said that these days, “they’re working right next to you and you don’t even know it. They’re in my daughter’s bedroom — they are my daughter.”

When the nation’s long-running war against drugs was defined by the crack epidemic and based in poor, predominantly black urban areas, the public response was defined by zero tolerance and stiff prison sentences. But today’s heroin crisis is different. While heroin use has climbed among all demographic groups, it has skyrocketed among whites; nearly 90 percent of those who tried heroin for the first time in the last decade were white.

And the growing army of families of those lost to heroin — many of them in the suburbs and small towns — are now using their influence, anger and grief to cushion the country’s approach to drugs, from altering the language around addiction to prodding government to treat it not as a crime, but as a disease.

“Because the demographic of people affected are more white, more middle class, these are parents who are empowered,” said Michael Botticelli, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, better known as the nation’s drug czar. “They know how to call a legislator, they know how to get angry with their insurance company, they know how to advocate. They have been so instrumental in changing the conversation.”

The presidential candidates of both parties are now talking about the drug epidemic, with Hillary Rodham Clinton hosting forums on the issue as Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina tell their own stories of loss while calling for more care and empathy.

Last week, President Barack Obama traveled to West Virginia, a mostly white state with high levels of overdoses, to discuss his $133 million proposal to expand access for drug treatment and prevention programs. The Justice Department is also preparing to release roughly 6,000 inmates from federal prisons as part of an effort to roll back the severe penalties issued to nonviolent drug dealers in decades past.

And in one of the most striking shifts in this new era, some local police departments have stopped punishing many heroin users. In Gloucester, Massachusetts, those who walk into the police station and ask for help, even if they are carrying drugs or needles, are no longer arrested. Instead, they are diverted to treatment, despite questions about the police departments’ unilateral authority to do so. It is an approach being replicated by three dozen other police departments around the country.

“How these policies evolve in the first place, and the connection with race, seems very stark,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, which examines racial issues in the criminal justice system.

Still, he and other experts said, a broad consensus seems to be emerging: The drug problem will not be solved by arrests alone, but rather by treatment.

An Epidemic’s New Terrain

Heroin’s spread into the suburbs and small towns grew out of an earlier wave of addiction to prescription painkillers; together the two trends are ravaging the country.

Deaths from heroin rose to 8,260 in 2013, quadrupling since 2000 and aggravating what some were already calling the worst drug overdose epidemic in U.S. history.

Overall, drug overdoses now cause more deaths than car crashes, with opioids like OxyContin and other pain medications killing 44 people a day.

Here in New England, the epidemic has grabbed officials by the lapels.

The region’s old industrial cities, quiet small towns and rural outposts are seeing a near-daily parade of drug summit meetings, task forces, vigils against heroin, pronouncements from lawmakers and news media reports on the heroin crisis.

New Hampshire is typical of the hardest-hit states. Last year, 325 people here died of opioid overdoses, a 68 percent increase from 2013. Potentially hundreds more deaths were averted by emergency medical workers, who last year administered naloxone, a medication that reverses the effects of opioid overdoses, in more than 1,900 cases.

Adding to the anxiety among parents, the state also ranks second to last, ahead only of Texas, in access to treatment programs; New Hampshire has about 100,000 people in need of treatment, state officials say, but the state’s publicly financed system can serve just 4 percent of them.

Since New Hampshire holds the first-in-the-nation presidential primary, residents have repeatedly raised the issue of heroin with the 2016 candidates.

Clinton still recalls her surprise that the first question she was asked in April, at her first open meeting in New Hampshire as a candidate, was not about the economy or health care, but heroin.

Last month, she laid out a $10 billion plan to combat and treat drug addiction over the next decade.

Many of the 15 Republican candidates for president have heard similar stories, and they are sharing their own.

“I have some personal experience with this as a dad, and it is the most heartbreaking thing in the world to have to go through,” Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, said at a town hall-style meeting in Merrimack, New Hampshire, in August. His daughter, Noelle, was jailed twice while in rehab, for being caught with prescription pills and accused of having crack cocaine.

Some black scholars said they welcomed the shift, while expressing frustration that earlier calls by African-Americans for a more empathetic approach were largely ignored.

“This new turn to a more compassionate view of those addicted to heroin is welcome,” said Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, who specializes in racial issues at Columbia and UCLA law schools. “But,” she added, “one cannot help notice that had this compassion existed for African-Americans caught up in addiction and the behaviors it produces, the devastating impact of mass incarceration upon entire communities would never have happened.”

Now, all the political engagement around heroin has helped create what Timothy Rourke, the chairman of the New Hampshire Governor’s Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, says is an impetus for change, not unlike the confluence of events that finally produced a response to the AIDS epidemic. “You have a lot of people dying, it’s no longer just ‘those people,’” he said. “You have people with lived experience demanding better treatment, and you have really good data.”

Among recent bills passed by the New Hampshire legislature in response is one that gives friends and family access to naloxone, the anti-overdose medication. Griffin, just a few months after his daughter Courtney died, was among those testifying in favor of the bill. It went into effect June 2.

Other parents like him have lobbied for similar measures across the country, and they have filled statehouses on days the bills are signed. Almost all states now have laws or pilot programs making it easier for emergency medical workers or family and friends to obtain naloxone. And 32 states have passed “good Samaritan” laws that protect people from prosecution, at least for low-level offenses, if they call 911 to report an overdose.

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