The 2015 Kentucky General Assembly session begins next month and the state’s heroin epidemic has a prominent spot on the legislative agenda.
More than a half-dozen heroin-related bills have been prefiled, as lawmakers seek answers to a problem that has shattered thousands of families and put a strain on law enforcement, the health care system and treatment centers.
In the weeks ahead, WFPL will explore the surge in heroin use and its impact in Kentucky and surrounding states, and follow the progress of the legislative proposals.
Today, Rick Howlett takes us to The Healing Place, a Louisville treatment facility where 96 percent of its detox beds are dedicated to heroin recovery.
‘We See It All’
On any given day, there are several hundred clients in various stages of recovery at The Healing Place men’s and women’s campuses in Louisville.
The Healing Place does not charge for its services. It was founded in 1989 as a homeless shelter and developed a reputation for effectiveness in treating alcohol and drug addiction. These days most of its clients are trying to kick a heroin habit.
Patrick Fogarty, the facility’s chief program officer and a certified drug and alcohol counselor, said heroin use can be found in every Louisville demographic.
“We see it all. You can’t classify it in one socioeconomic group or one part of the city,” Fogarty said.
“When I was a kid growing up, a heroin user was a guy in a dark alley behind a Dumpster with with a needle in his arm. And that’s just not the case (today).”
Officials said heroin—cheap, potent and in abundant supply from Latin America—has swept across Kentucky and the region like a storm surge, partly the result of a crackdown on the trafficking of prescription drugs like Oxycontin.
Sam, 25, has been in recovery at The Healing Place since early Feburary.
Born in California, Sam’s family moved to Louisville when he was a small child.
“Went to St. Francis School out in Goshen, went to St. Francis High School. Ended up getting a GED, (had) a little bit of college,” he said in an interview.
Sam starting using alcohol and marijuana as a teen, then cocaine and prescription drugs and “climbed the ladder all the way up to heroin,” which he eventually used intravenously.
He compares the euphoria from heroin to being wrapped in an electric blanket.
“It just numbed all my pain. For a while it just got rid of all my problems.”
But those problems persisted and worsened, as Sam struggled with the daily task of feeding his addiction.
“Trying to get some, trying to save some for the morning, (I) had to have some to go to work. If I didn’t have the money to get it, I would do things I’m ashamed of.”
That included stealing from his family. At one point he was sleeping in his car.
Sam’s parents, who are divorced, put him in a series of treatment facilities, but his mother, Ann, said he always turned back to heroin and other drugs and destructive behavior.
“He smashed up a Jaguar, he smashed up a Range Rover,” she said. “Knocked over TVs, trashed my house. I had another child in the house that I had to take care of.”
Ann said she finally made the tough decision to cut off all contact with Sam. He entered The Healing Place in February after a drug binge and car crash that landed him in the hospital.
He’s been sober since then. He and his mother have mended their relationship.
“It’s incredible,” Ann said through tears.
“I’ve got my son back. I’ve got my son back. I really do.”
We also spoke with Ashlee, 29, who grew up in the Valley Station area. She starting using drugs at age 18. Her heroin addiction cost her custody of her young daughter.
Ashlee has been in recovery at The Healing Place for just over a year.
“A year ago, I didn’t know anything about recovery, I didn’t know that there’s a different way to live. I thought everybody used drugs and alcohol,” she said.
Ashlee has since reconnected with her child and the rest of her family. She says there’s hope for anyone who’s spiraled into addiction.
“There is a different way,” she said. ” You can be happy and don’t have to live like you are.”
Ashlee and Sam both said they’re keenly aware of how fortunate they are to be alive. There’s a high risk of fatal overdose with heroin.
Iin 2013 there were 105 overdose deaths in Louisville alone in which heroin was detected, according to the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy.
The Healing Place’s Patrick Fogarty said he hopes lawmakers tackling the issue again next year will focus more on treatment than on punishment for users and small-time dealers, most of whom are selling the drug to support their own habit.
“When you’re in addiction, it’s the drug and everything else is way down the chain, and that’s including your family,” Fogarty said.
“So your instincts are way out of whack.”