Last January, Wilson Police Capt. Eric Smith knocked on Mike and Becky Cannon’s front door.
Smith didn’t know the Cannons at the time. But their son, Jonathan, along with some friends had been stopped and searched by Wilson Police. Smith suspected the couple’s son was in trouble, something beyond his or their control.
And he wanted to warn them.
“I just had to warn them what they were facing,” Smith said. “I told them they were getting ready to have some really hard times.”
A lot has transpired in those 15 months since that first face-to-face meeting.
Despite efforts to save Jonathan from a heroin addiction and two bouts in a rehabilitation facility, 26-year-old Jonathan died from an overdose in August 2015.
Smith and the Cannons are now close friends, brought together by that tragedy and through the hope that perhaps they can help other young people escape the same fate.
Last Wednesday afternoon, Smith and Cannon were together again, this time in Raleigh testifying before a House panel studying opioid addiction.
The two spoke in candid terms, often through tears.
Simply put, heroin and opioid addiction is devastating to the user and their families, Smith said.
“I cannot begin to tell you how they steal and take over the lives of those who use them,” Smith said. “It is both tragic and heartbreaking to have to watch members of our community go through this.”
Around 2010, Wilson started seeing heroin back on the streets more and more, and arrests and seizures have steadily increased since, Smith said.
“Along with those cases have come the overdose deaths,” Smith said.
Today, police and the community have witnessed more and more families struggling with addiction problems.
“I say that it is the family struggling because it is not just the addict, it’s the family and the impact it has on them,” Smith said. “They get lied to, they get stolen from, then they struggle to get their loved one into a rehabilitation program. They struggle to keep their loved one in a rehabilitation program.”
Smith told lawmakers of the college student with a 4.0 grade point average. This individual fell into heroin when they started dating someone with an addiction to pain medication.
“I cannot begin to tell you the impact it had on their life but also on their family’s lives,” Smith said.
A single mother’s 16-year-old went to a hotel room with some friends and tried some pills and likely heroin. Her child overdosed and almost died.
EMS saved the teen by administering naloxone, an opioid reversal drug.
“I explained to this mother this probably wouldn’t be the last time,” Smith said. “I explained they would likely steal from her. They would probably sell everything they could get their hands on. She said they had already sold most all of their own belongings at the time and electronics.”
Another heroin user overdosed last year. He was with two of his friends.
“They were both too scared to call the police and were unaware of the good Samaritan law that would allow them to report that without fear of being arrested or charged,” Smith said. “Finally, hours later, they called someone else who, in turn, reported it, but it was too late.”
These aren’t the only cases. Almost every other day, Wilson County Emergency Medical Services responds to a reported drug overdose.
And this isn’t something that’s just happening in Wilson, Smith said. It’s happening everwhere as heroin and its cheap street cost has infiltrated every community. Police are seeing methadone, oxycodone, Percocet and other drugs people get a prescription for lead to heroin use.
“I am hearing these same stories from all of my colleagues,” Smith said. “We will not be able to arrest our way out of this problem.”
A GRIEVING FATHER
Cannon said as a family they had never been exposed to anything like this with their children.
Jonathan had told his parents he had a problem with prescription pills. But Capt. Smith was at the Cannons house that 2015 day saying it was heroin.
No one prepares a parent for something like this.
“Eric came to the house, and I didn’t know whether to believe him or not,” Cannon said. “I thought prescription pain pills; I thought how bad could it be.”
The Cannons convinced Jonathan to seek help through rehab. But he only stayed two days. The officials at the rehabilitation facility told the Cannons he really needed to stay there up to a year.
“In May 2015, my wife received a text ... ‘Come now.’”
“We drove over to the house, there is an EMS vehicle and five police cars,” Cannon said. “As a parent I can tell you my heart just dropped out of my stomach. Oh my gosh, you know it’s my child.”
EMS told Cannon their son “was gone” when they got there, but they used naloxone for 3 or 4 minutes and got him back.
“I have my son on the back of the ambulance, and I’m trying to think, what do you do?” Cannon said.
“As a parent, I looked at him and said, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ If you keep doing this, you are going to either end up in the cemetery or in prison. It doesn’t end up good. I don’t want another parent to be sitting where I am sitting or my wife is sitting.”
The life of an addict is a cycle of highs and lows, Cannon said. The lows win out.
Jonathan got in trouble again, but he went back to rehab. He stayed four days this time.
His father wanted to make rehab a condition of probation. He was told that couldn’t happen.
House committee members appeared interested in finding out more on the issue and whether they could address such a condition.
Cannon said just a few days in rehab could make a difference, one they could see in their son.
“On Aug. 19 at 2:33 a.m. I woke up; my wife was standing by our bed,” Cannon said. “She was on the phone (and was told) our son had died from an overdose. The phone call that no parent should ever get.”
Their 26-year-old son was gone.
“I can’t say it started with prescription pain pills — probably alcohol and pot — but it eventually went to prescription pain pills,” Cannon said.
Cannon, a longtime Wilson resident and realtor, stood up at his son’s funeral and addressed the young people directly in a church overflowing with mourners.
“You are here and a friend of Jonathan’s; you are either a user or know someone who is,” he said. “We’ll do whatever we can to help you. As we fought through the battle and everything, we put together a lot of resources. I want to be a safe place; you can call me anytime, day or night. I’ll talk to you. I’ll come to you. I’ll cry with you. I’ll hug on you. I’ll point you to resources to try to help you.”
That might have been the end of it.
But later that night, a few kids began to show up at their house — kids who needed help. As promised, the Cannons helped put together some professional resources. The message has resonated since that time. More young folks have reached out.
To date, day and night, the Cannons have had about 100 heroin or other users reach out to them seeking help.
From Mike’s no-filter honesty to Becky’s nurturing kindness, they make a formidable team. And while the grief is still very real, the goals are taking concrete form.
The Cannons are becoming advocates in the fight against opioid abuse and addiction, channeling grief into a newfound resolve to create a legacy for Jonathan, one that will help other young people.
Cannon dreams of a substance abuse treatment facility to one day locate in Wilson, something of a void considering the demonstrated need in the community. He has joined the Wilson County Substance Abuse Coalition since his son’s death.
“He’s going to make a difference in the community,” Smith said.
Despite the growing recognition of addiction issues in society, Mike and Becky Cannon are among a rare group, the very few parents who have lost sons and daughters to addiction and are willing to talk about it. Most still can’t. Or won’t.
As an offshoot of the Wilson County Substance Abuse Coalition, the Wilson County Substance Abuse Recovery Coalition has also started.
“We are trying to identify and address and overcome the stigma and the needs of those currently in the storm,” Cannon said.
First on the agenda is to begin a support group for parents who have lost a child suddenly. It could be from an overdose or car accident, he said.
“At a substance abuse coalition meeting I asked a narcotics sergeant, if you look at the bracket between the age of 21 to 35 in Wilson what percentage have a problem with substance abuse?” he said. “He quickly threw out a number of 25 percent. I’m thinking I can’t believe it’s that high. As soon as he said that there is a lady from social services at the meeting who said, ‘Oh no it’s higher than that. It’s 30 to 35 percent.’”
NOT ALWAYS LIKE THIS
Smith said when he started working in Wilson in 1991, “We were in the middle of what I call the crack cocaine epidemic.”
At the time there was only one place to buy heroin in Wilson.
There were maybe 50, 75 heroin addicts.
“We were very fortunate at the time; we put together an investigative grand jury, a multi-agency task force, and we were able to make some arrests and actually dismantle that organization,” Smith said. For the most part that problem went away. That was around 1994.
Around 2000, police started seeing noticeable increases in prescription pill cases.
“Cases where we would have to respond to the emergency room, remove someone who was refusing to leave because the doctor was refusing to write pain medication prescriptions for them,” Smith said. “We started getting reports of car break-ins, residential break-ins, the only thing reported stolen at the time was prescription medicines.”
Then police started getting reports of teenagers having something called fishbowl parties.
That’s where teenagers would go to their parents’ medicine cabinets, steal their parents’ medications, bring them to a house, throw them into a bowl, reach in, and take one to four at a time.
“At first I thought this was a silly teenage stunt that would just make most of them sick,” Smith said. “But then we learned of teenagers crushing the pills, and either snorting them or diluting them and injecting them.”
It was clear this was becoming more and more of a problem, he said.
On Wednesday in Raleigh, Smith and Cannon testified at the House Select Committee studying the practice of step therapy by health insurance companies. The committee focused on access to abuse-deterrent opioids, a topic gaining some attention with rampant reports of opioid abuse.
Abuse-deterrent opioids include a reformulation that makes abuse of prescription pain medications more difficult by making it harder to chew, crush, cut, grate or grind the pill, said Fred Brason II, CEO of Project Lazarus, a non-profit organization formed in Wilkes County in response to the high overdose death rates there.
These prescription drugs cost more than generic versions and can be more difficult to get through some health insurance plans.
One committee members said he wasn’t in favor of any mandate that would result in higher costs.
Several leaders and medical professionals testified in support of reducing barriers to accessing the abuse-deterrent opioids that they believe are a tool to helping curb prescription opioid abuse that can lead to heroin use.
Step therapy itself is a practice of insurance companies requiring members to try to rule out lower cost medications first before “stepping up” to the doctor-prescribed medication.
“There was a question of cost,” Cannon said. “Let’s talk about real cost. If we don’t get a handle on this it’s not my children’s generation we are going to lose. It’s the next generation. It’s my grandchildren. I grew up in a time when we could leave our doors unlocked. You knew your neighbors. If your kid was riding down the road and scraped his knee somebody would pick him up and brush him off. That’s not the world we live in today.”
Cannon said drug abuse is costing the lives of our children.
“If we could address substance abuse in my community,” Cannon said to the panel, “if we could get rid of half of it and reduce our crime by 40 percent, can you imagine the impact that would have on our community? More people would want to live there. More people would want to do business there. So yeah, there is a cost, treating these pills, but I think it’s minor compared to what it’s really costing us.”
Today, the CDC says heroin use is at epidemic levels, and young people 18 to 25 are falling prey. Between 2002 and 2013 nationally, the rate of heroin-related overdose deaths nearly quadrupled, and more than 8,200 people died in 2013.
In addition, a CDC report issued in January said the U.S. is experiencing an epidemic of drug overdose deaths.
Since 2000, the rate of deaths from drug overdoses has increased 137 percent, including a 200 percent increase in the rate of overdose deaths involving opioids (opioid pain relievers and heroin).
During 2014, a total of 47,055 drug overdose deaths occurred in the U.S.
“These findings indicate that the opioid overdose epidemic is worsening,” the report said. “There is a need for continued action to prevent opioid abuse, dependence and death, improve treatment capacity for opioid use disorders, and reduce the supply of illicit opioids, particularly heroin and illicit fentanyl.”
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