That is what Sheriff Mike Haley said Tuesday during a town hall discussion at the Washoe County Commission Chambers. At the event, community leaders and the public tackled the topics of heroin and prescription drug addictions during a meeting hosted in part by A&E television’s Emmy award-winning series “Intervention.”
Not only is the drug cheap, Haley said, its use and effects are quickly spreading as well. The Reno Police Department’s street enforcement team recently reported seizures of heroin have increased a “staggering” 3,500 percent in the past four years, and drug-induced deaths are second only to motor vehicle accidents in Washoe County.
“Heroin use is increasing nine times faster than methamphetamine, marijuana and cocaine,” Haley said, adding that heroin users continue to get younger and younger.
“One in five arrested for heroin in Washoe County are teenagers,” he said. “You can get hooked on heroin for 10 bucks.”
But a heroin habit will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and possibly the user’s life in the long run, he said.
Tuesday’s forum was presented at the Washoe County Commission Chambers by A&E Network, Charter Communications, Join Together Northern Nevada (JTNN) and Palm Partners to give students, parents, law enforcement experts and treatment center providers the opportunity to learn more about the drug problem in Washoe County and to watch a screening of “Intervention.”
Panelists included Haley, interventionist Jeff VanVonderen from the show “Intervention,” child psychiatrist Dr. Edward Lynam and Denise Everett, former JTNN board chair and director of Quest Counseling.
Amanda Sanchez, news anchor from KOLO-TV Channel 8, served as moderator and said she did not realize how widespread the heroin and prescription drug problem is locally.
“I had no idea how many people are affected in just northern Nevada,” Sanchez said, adding that drug addiction not only affects the user, but also the addict’s family and friends. “It affects everyone involved.”
Sanchez said it is time to break the silence and stigma surrounding addiction and raise awareness for programs such as “Intervention” that help family members rescue their loved one.
“Often when you need help, you are not sure where to turn,” Sanchez said. “Hopefully tonight you’ll have some of those questions answered.”
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), an estimated 20 percent of people in the United States have used prescription drugs in an abusive manner. The institute says that abusing certain drugs such as narcotic painkillers, sedatives, tranquilizers and stimulants can lead to addiction.
“Experts don’t know exactly why this type of drug abuse is increasing,” the NIH website states. “The availability of drugs is probably one reason. Doctors are prescribing more drugs for more health problems than ever before. Online pharmacies make it easy to get prescription drugs without a prescription, even for youngsters.”
During Tuesday’s town hall meeting, Lynam said drug addicts use opiates in high doses to achieve a sense of euphoria, and this can be very dangerous.
“Opiates are used to treat pain and are widely used,” Lynam said. “Everyone in this room has probably used it at one time or another” to treat an injury or illness.
When used as directed, opiate-based medications are effective in treating the symptoms they are prescribed for, he said. But those who abuse the drugs develop a tolerance to opiates “almost overnight,” Lynam said, so they continue to raise the dose they ingest.
Pills are very expensive on the street, he said, so users will begin to open the pills and smoke or inject them to try to achieve the same high they did when they first began using.
“Then they move on to heroin,” Lynam said, because it is less costly than prescription drugs.
The average heroin addict has a mortality rate 64 times higher than the average person, Lynam said.
VanVonderen said it is important to understand that addiction is a disease and should be treated as such.
“The thing that is frustrating is it is the only disease people are willing to take half measures about,” VanVonderen said. “If your kid had a tumor, you wouldn’t wait until it got bigger to take them and get it removed.”
Everett said addiction is often seen as a character flaw or a choice, when it is in fact a disease. Shame and fear of losing their job or children often keeps people from seeking treatment.
“We throw up a lot of barriers for people that want help,” Everett said. “We need to overcome that stigma by ending discrimination in the workplace.”
VanVonderen said that although drug users might put off getting help or family members might not think the problem is bad enough to intervene, “an intervention is coming.”
The intervention might come in the form of an arrest, losing a job or death, but an intervention is inevitable, he said. VanVonderen suggests family members and friends enlist the help of a professional interventionist to step in before it is too late.
“There is an idea that until a person hits rock bottom, they’re not going to change,” which isn’t true, VanVonderen said. “Why don’t we raise the bottom? Then we didn’t have to wring our hands and wait for another intervention to occur. Don’t put it off.”
Charter presented a $3,000 donation to JTNN during the town hall meeting to help fight drug abuse in Washoe County.
“Working closely with JTNN to bring this town hall meeting to the community really opened our eyes to the great work they are doing in northern Nevada,” said Scott Dockery, director of operations for Charter in Reno. “We’re proud to make this donation to JTNN and help battle the growing epidemic of substance abuse in our community.”
Charter subscribers can view Tuesday’s town hall meeting in Reno beginning May 9 through Charter OnDemand on channel 1. To access the program, select “IWantMore,” and the Intervention town hall meeting will be located in the “Local, Education and Health and Wellness” category.