A crowd of 75 eager listeners filled the banquet room at Bully’s Smokehouse in Columbia last Tuesday night to hear from members of St. Louis Heroin Help during a public forum sponsored by the Columbia Kiwanis Club. The audience included young people and adults — students, parents, teachers and government officials. They came to learn what to do about this national drug tragedy.
Attendees heard many facts about drug use. They were told that heroin and other drugs, including prescription pain killers, have killed an average of 500 people in the St. Louis region each year for the past decade — and the rate of deaths is accelerating.
In fact, some estimate these drugs now kill more people per year than traffic accidents.
The victims are mostly young people, ages 15 to 35. The men from St. Louis Heroin Help — Joe B., Chad Sabora and Phillip Wahby — told personal stories and fielded audience questions. All are recovering from drug use that nearly killed them.
“How young do they start,” one mother asked? “Eleven, 12,” was the answer from an organization member.
But not all start that early. And while a bad childhood, including abuse, may be the beginning for many drug addicts, one person who addressed the audience, Sabora, started later.
In fact, far from being a stereotypical “druggie,” Sabora was once a prosecuting attorney up in Cook County. Today, he is a recovering addict and a restaurant waiter.
“And, I’m clean,” he affirmed.
Joe B., who mostly looked down as he talked, asked that his last name not be used.
“I’m used to talking to other addicts, but talking to ‘normal’ people is a pretty new experience for me,” he said.
Joe told how he started drinking alcohol with friends at age 14.
“We moved to marijuana, and then we discovered grandma’s pills,” he said.
He told how a small group of friends would take pills from medicine cabinets at home and at grandparents’ homes.
“We’d look them up on the Internet to see what they were.”
Most of his group escaped drug use, but Joe moved on, eventually to injecting heroin.
Before he reached his bottom two years ago, Joe said he repeatedly lost jobs, got kicked out of his parents’ home, overdosed three times, totaled seven cars, and went through seven treatment cycles.
Why did the problem keep returning?
“Drugs made me feel how I wanted to feel,” he said.
Joe told how he left home, lied his way back home, lost more jobs, wrecked cars, and lost summers to drugs.
Sabora told how he became addicted. He said “addicts are very determined people. I would tell you anything, do anything, whatever was necessary to achieve my single purpose — to get the drugs I wanted. I was constantly leaving the house. I said I was going to the store. I was going to the gas station. I would be gone for hours. Drug dealers are always late.”
Sabora said most heroin arriving here comes from Mexico and South America. And then there’s hydrocodone.
“Americans represent only a small portion of the world’s population, but 99 percent of the hydrocodone – a popular prescription pain killer – produced in the world, is consumed in the United States,” he said.
Sabora and Wahby said tools helping in the fight against prescription drug abuse include drug drop boxes. Locally, there are boxes at the Columbia and Waterloo police stations.
No questions are asked there. Nobody will be contacted. They encouraged people to gather up unused drugs of any sort – legal or illegal – and drop them in these boxes for proper disposal.
Others in the audience related their experiences concerning drugs and drug deaths. Monroe County Board Chairman Delbert Wittenauer stood up and said that this isn’t just a big city problem.
“We know of opiate drug use and have had overdose deaths right here in Monroe County,” he said.
The presenters told of resources and medications that can help. One medication, naloxone (also known as narcan) can save a life if it is administered in time to an overdose victim. Another, zivitrol, blunts the effects of opiates, helping an addict to escape the clutches of a drug.
“We will go to the fleabag motel and take an addict to a hospital,” Wahby said.
One hurdle the St. Louis Heroin Help organization is emphasizing is removing the stigma of addiction.
“We hope people will become more willing to seek help and help others if they are not looked down upon for doing so,” Sabora said. “Addiction is a physical matter, not just personal weakness.”
Help and information is available. This organization is taking its message to the schools, too.
“We spoke to Columbia teachers in January,” Wahby said. “If we save one life, it is worth it.”
Visit online at www.stlheroinhelp.org for more information, including phone numbers and other resources.
The problem is right here in Monroe County. An addict can escape addiction, “but the best way out is not to get in,” Sabora said.
It probably took about 10 minutes to read this story. Read it again. Then look at your watch. Another person just died from a drug overdose.
Forum at WHS
The community is invited to a special “Addiction Town Hall” forum to be held Tuesday, March 19, at 7 p.m., in the Waterloo High School auditorium.
The Monroe County coroner’s office is working with WHS to provide a program packed with information and facts on illegal and prescription drug abuse.
Various speakers will share information, their experiences, signs to look for, and where one can go for help.
For more information, call Kelly Lerch or Brianne Renz at 939-3455.