By Kelsey Clements
The Williamston Post
The first time Greg Dagner tried heroin, he said, it “was phenomenally pleasurable and a tremendous rush.” It was like nothing he had ever felt before.
“It took away the bad things and added pleasure instead,” said Dagner, who lives in Williamston. “It helped me deal with reality.”
But when the high was over, Dagner said, he felt the urge to use the drug again so he didn’t have to come to terms with his reality. It was a never-ending cycle. The days were the same; he would wake up, get high, go through withdrawal and use again.
Dagner is just one individual in a population of addicts. The heroin epidemic is a growing problem in the United States.
Since 2002, heroin overdose deaths in the U.S. have increased by 286 percent to over 10,500 deaths annually, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 45 percent of those addicted to heroin began with addictions to opiate-based painkillers and moved to heroin because it is generally cheaper.
Phil Pavona, founder of Michigan-based Families Against Narcotics gives presentations to schools and organizations and collects research about the epidemic. He said that in the U.S., a person dies every 15 minutes from a drug overdose.
“The United States is a pill-popping society and wants pain gone immediately,” said Pavona.
Pavona said that prescription medications increased over the past 10 years when hospitals began to put an emphasis on pain control.
“Health officials began to medicate people more than needed,” said Pavona. “They never expected that people would become addicted to pain pills.”
Dagner started taking his mother’s prescription pain medications to fight off college stress as a Lansing Community College student after graduating from Williamston High School in 2002. The stress had increased the frequency of epileptic seizures he had experienced since childhood, and he used his seizure disability as an excuse to take more and more opiates.
Dagner said his substance abuse problems began as an adolescent when his parents got divorced.
“My life was crumbling,” said Dagner. “I had these negative attitudes from the past and didn’t know how to cope with my emotions.”
In high school he began experimenting with drugs and realized that drugs and alcohol had the power to change his thoughts; all his fear and negativity went away. He said he never met a drug he didn’t like. By the time he was in college and hooked on his mother’s medication, he couldn’t stop his addiction.
In 2008, he dropped out of Michigan State University, to which he had transferred, and hit the streets, where he began to use heroin.
This painkiller trend helps to explain why the heroin epidemic has been on the rise. According to the Michigan Department of Community Health, from 2003 to 2012, the number of written prescriptions have increased drastically. The number of Oxycodone prescriptions have increased 129 percent and Hydromorphone prescriptions, which is a derivative for morphine, have increased 391 percent.
In 2012, 20.9 million prescriptions were written for controlled substances, with Hydrocodone being the most prescribed drug, accounting for 32.2 percent of these.
With the amount of opiate prescriptions on the rise, it’s not a surprise to health officials that the number of deaths related to drug overdoses have also increased.
“I have never been good with moderation,” said Dagner. “I can’t even count how many times I overdosed.”
Dagner’s dad knew something was up and found heroin hidden on him. He called the police and he was arrested. It was this time spent in Ingham County Jail that precipitated where he is today.
Through various amounts of time spent in jail, therapy, treatment, and detoxing from heroin, Dagner hit rock bottom. After spending two weeks in an observation cell, he realized that the jail officials had seen him before and he wasn’t going to get special treatment.
“I never wanted to go through the process of detoxing from heroin again,” said Dagner. “It seems so simple, but I then realized that I would never be able to do drugs again.”
He was released from jail on probation on April 12, 2013, which marks the beginning of an endless journey of sobriety.
“I have been sober for three years,” said Dagner. “I have made amends. Not only with family and friends, but with society, and most importantly, I have made amends with myself.”
But the sad reality is that not everyone lives to tell their story.
From 1999 to 2012, the number of deaths in Michigan increased from 235 to 941 per year. Of those, 73.5 percent of the unintentional deaths were from ages 25 to 54 and the average death was 41.9 years, according to the Michigan Department of Community Health.
Pavona said that specifically in Ingham County, over a person on average dies every week from a drug overdose. He also said that in total, there are over 7,000 addicts in Ingham County alone.
However, there are programs available to help try to reduce the number of heroin users and overdose deaths.
According to U.S. News, the White House released its plan to spend $5 million into combating heroin use and trafficking. The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention have also sent out warnings to try to raise awareness for prevention of the deadly drug.
“Education is a huge part of prevention,” said Bob Young, Williamston Police Chief. “It’s important to make people aware of the problem to prevent it from happening in the future.”
There are programs across the country such as Families Against Narcotics, as well as support groups for addicts and their families. There are recovery and treatment programs to help addicts get the resources and support they need to become sober.
Young said he isn’t aware of any other programs specifically in Williamston. He said what Pavona is doing is an important step to educate children and their families to try to prevent heroin usage at an early age.