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FIGHT FOR OUR KIDS: 'It's going to take all of us' to combat heroin, drug overdoses in Wilson

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Almost every other day, Wilson County Emergency Medical Services responds to a reported drug overdose.

Police, the Wilson County Substance Abuse Coalition, even the Centers for Disease Control agree: Heroin, in parti cular, and drug use as a whole are taking a human toll, particularly on our young people, staking its own claim on our future, one that can’t be rewritten.

Few know the price better than Mike and Becky Cannon, whose son, Jonathan, died Aug. 19 from a heroin overdose.

The pain, the rawness, persist. But there’s something new. A resolve has taken hold. A fight.

Mike Cannon, a longtime Wilson resident and realtor, stood up at his son’s funeral and took it in an unexpected direction. He 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. He has kept his promise.

Cannon said it’s going to take the entire community coming together to address this issue.

He’s a big advocate of Wilson police, but said law enforcement is going to need a lot of help to combat this issue.

“It’s bigger than they are,” Cannon said. “It’s going to take all of us and we have to get serious about it. I’m all in. Whatever it tak es to help these guys to help a kid get off the heroin.”

THE DRUG PROBLEM

Police are seeing methadone, oxycodone, Percocet and other drugs people get a prescription for lead into heroin use.

Sgt. Rob Weatherford, Wilson Police Narcotics Unit supervisor, said police are seeing a seamless transition where people go right into heroin, particularly if they are on methadone because they go back and forth between the two.

“We see it time and time again,” Weatherford said. “They will go, ‘I am going to get clean and go to the methadone clinic,’ and do good for a little while and fall off and go into heroin again.”

Pills are the driving force into heroin from what police are seeing. And heroin is easier to get than pills these days.

“Now it’s at an all-time high across the nation, not just here but everywhere,” Weatherford said. “There are so many people out there dealing with this stuff. They are pretty open about it.”

In fact, 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.

Heroin has evolved to the point where dealers label their batch in pride with names such as Call of Duty.

“That’s indicative to the perception of harm or disapproval being very low right now,” said Erin Day, director of the Wilson County Substance Abuse Coalition. “We need to increase the perception of risk, harm, because it’s real. That’s an opportunity for our community.”

All told, Wilson police made 799 drug-related arrests in 2014, and they run the g amut. Police are seeing cocaine, marijuana, ecstasy, PCP and, in particular, the dominance of heroin and the illegal prescription drug trade. So far this year, there have been 425 arrests.

They all agree Wilson needs a united, grassroots effort to make a change before more young lives are lost.

Cannon believes the local methadone clinic is more a money-making venture than a help.

“They are substituting another drug for heroin and these kids are going back and forth,” Cannon said. “They don’t want these kids off of this. It’s a cycle. My son had a friend who was going through the methadone clinic and found he was in worse shape. It may help some, but I have yet to see it.”

For his part, Cannon said he doesn’t want to see another kid lose his or her life to drugs.

“We have law enforcement here trying to help them and the dealers are telling them you can’t trust those guys,” Cannon said. “That’s a crock. You can. My first exposure was Capt. Eric Smith. He bent over backward to try to help us, to help us understand what was going on and I didn’t get it. He has a heart for these kids. Now I am going to do everything I can to make sure other parents in this community aren’t going through what my wife and I are going through. It’s the most difficult thing you will ever deal with.”

Investigators said heroin alone keeps them busy and that’s not taking into account crack and cocaine.

“All we can do is arrest them,” Weatherford said of dealers. “What happens from there is not up to us.”

Police labeled heroin the No. 1 drug problem in Wilson without reservation. Pills can rival in availability.

In light of th e deaths associated with drug overdoses, police are investigating all of them and potentially charging the dealers all the way up to second-degree murder.

It’s “a choice we decided to make because of what we were seeing; it had never been tried here,” Weatherford said.

N.C. General Statutes give law enforcement the ability to target drug dealers. That’s a movement championed by the State Bureau of Investigations as well.

“And when you start meeting these families — at this department, we meet the families — and see the hurt in them and what it’s doing in that community, we have to take action on it,” Weatherford said.

In May, three people faced felony charges, including a second-degree murder charge for one, after a local man died as a result of a heroin overdose.

Police arrested and charged 64-year-old Elton Wayne Walston with second-degree murder by drug distribution and two counts of trafficking heroin in connection with the death of 43-year-old Timothy Alan Barkley.

More recently, a 26-year-old Bailey man was charged with involuntary manslaughter in the overdose death of a young Wilson man, according to the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office.

Barrett Campbell Parker, of Shiloh Church Road, Bailey, was charged with involuntary manslaughter, a felony, in the death of Austin R. Wiggs, 22. Wiggs died of an overdose of liquid fentanyl.

“We understand the user does what the user does, but someone is supplying them with something illegal that can take their life,” Weatherford said.

Alcohol and marijuana are gateway drugs, Capt. Jeff Boykin said. Someone doesn’t just start off with heroin.

North Carolina has the 30th highest drug overdose mortality rate in th e United States, with 11.4 per 100,000 people suffering drug overdose fatalities, according to a report, Prescription Drug Abuse: Strategies to Stop the Epidemic.

FIGHTING FOR THEIR SON

The Cannons weren’t exactly parents with blinders on. Jonathan, like most users, had tried to hide his addiction. His parents fought for him and successfully got him into rehab twice, even worked on their own strategies through Nar-Anon, a support group that meets monthly in Nashville for families and friends of those with substance abuse issues.

Cannon’s son overdosed twice; the first time wasn’t fatal.

They got the call.

“EMS said he was gone when we got there, that Narcan (the reversal drug Naloxone for opiate use) worked in 3 or 4 minutes and we got him back. You would think as a parent that’s the wake up, yet three months later you get the call that no parent wants to get,” Cannon said.

The Cannons didn’t first recognize problems until December. Things went downhill fast.

“We went from start to finish from December to August,” Cannon said.

Jonathan stayed in rehab the first time just two days.

“He came back and tried to convince us he had a handle on life,” Cannon said. “Three weeks later, he got in trouble out of town.”

Jonathan went to rehab a second time and it got his attention a little more.

“These kids, they think they are invincible,” Cannon said. “This drug is bigger than they are. We have to wake up. We are losing these kids.”

The second rehab was around July. He might have stayed in rehab longer, but he left for a court date and didn’t return.

Cannon said he was focused more on getting his son’s attention to the problem and getting help than showing his love.

“I wish I had shown some of that,” Cannon said. “As parents, you have to always show love. They also have to know there are consequences for their actions. When Jonathan OD’d the first time — to them it’s like they passed out and don’t know what happened. 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.”

Those suffering from addiction need help, not condemnation.

“The sooner that we, as a community, can accept that addiction is a disease, a disease of the mind and of the body, and that we should do everything in our power to get the medical, psychological and emotional treatment for that person ... that’s what can make the difference,” Day said.

Addiction is not a moral issue, Day said.

The Cannons have found friends in Wilson police and vice versa in their shared desire to help more young people.

“It’s phenomenal what he is doing,” Weatherford said.

Emotions are still high for the Cannons. When Cannon watches videos of his son, he cries.

“Jonathan was a kid you could put in a room with 100 strangers and he would come out being everyone’s friend,” his father said. “He loved people and people loved him.”

They would notice a change in his personality.

This hasn’t been easy for the family; talking in such a public way has been a difficult decision, one with much turmoil. They know they could face criticism.

But they also know they might be able to help someone, maybe just one more person, maybe a lot.

Cannon doesn’t want his son remembered as just someone who overdosed.

“My goal is that he be remembered as someone who made a difference — he made a lot of bad choices, but that through his life, others can be helped,” his father said. “I don’t know how much time I have left, but you have from now until what’s at the other end of that dash.”

Jonathan’s death is being investigated by police. No arrests have been made. He was 26.

‘WE LOVE YOU’

Nar-Anon proved to be helpful to the Cannons.

It was difficult to walk in there, but even Jonathan noticed a change. Family members learn whether or not they are enabling a behavior. Jonathan noticed they were understanding it better.

“We love you so much we needed to know how to help you better, but also how to help ourselves better,” Becky Cannon recalls telling her son. “But if you love the people struggling with these addictions, most people are going to go, ‘What can I do?’”

Becky Cannon realized there were certain things she had to change about what she was doing and Jonathan seemed to appreciate what they were doing.

“I worked hard to build a trust relationship with him so he could come to me with what he was going through,” Becky Cannon said. “I would keep a poker face and let him talk — on the inside it was so very hard to hear the struggles he would be encountering. The regrets for me aren’t quite as deep because we had built a sharing relationship.”

Becky Cannon understands her son was struggling with an addiction.

“How can we take a painful thing, a devastating thing, a tragic thing, and turn it into a positive thing for even just one person,” Becky Cannon said.

Mike Cannon credits God and a strong faith as the source of their strength and resolve.

“We chose to do this because at the sacrifice of our own pride, we are finding others — people will come and talk to us,” Becky Cannon said.

“If I could trade places with him I would,” Mike Cannon adds. “I can’t. But if I can prevent another kid from doing this or a parent from going through what we went through, it’s worth it. We have to stop it.”

STEADY NUMBERS

According to Wilson County EMS officials, overall overdose numbers have been s teady for several years. Last year, EMS responded to 164 overdose calls, one almost every other day. This doesn’t include those who are driven by private vehicle to an emergency room, all of which makes getting a complete number nearly impossible.

Officials have also witnessed pocketing heroin cases bordering the county and whether that remains outside or could lead to more overdoses here is unknown.

“Half of overdose calls are dispatched under another complaint and half are being dispatched as actual overdoses and we have to get there and figure out why they are unconscious,” said Chris Parker, EMS clinical affairs officer. “The only one we can really reverse is opiates. We can give them this medicine (Narcan) and they wake up. They are usually very upset.”

Sometimes, if patients wake up too fast and are alert, they don’t want to go with EMS and that leads to some bad confrontations. At this point, EMS is seeking to transport them to the hospital.

Sometimes, people won’t tell EMS what they ingested or everything they took, which is counterproductive in their treatment.

Treatment is different for different drugs and for some drugs, EMS can only treat the symptoms. Paramedics continuously undergo education on the latest techniques.

“It’s an ongoing problem,” Parker said. “It’s steady and varied, sedatives, PCP, painkillers, illegal substances, everything is out there.”

It’s impossible to accurately quantify everything as there are obviously some cases that are going to be attributed to one issue that truly started with an overdose of drugs, officials said. The numbers include intentional and unintentional overdoses.

DOESN’T PAY

Police point out that the dru g-dealing lifestyle isn’t paying anymore. A glut in the market is leading to desperation, saturation and sometimes scraping to make ends meet. It’s not the lifestyle depicted on the silver screen.

Still, the crimes associated with drugs permeate a community and can realistically be linked with 80 to 90 percent of crimes such as break-ins and thefts.

It’s a chain reaction from drugs.

And when kids are lured into trying drugs, they might not realize a one-time experimentation can turn to a lifelong struggle.

Opiates are just so addictive, Smith said. Once young people start experimenting into that realm it just takes them and they don’t realize the power it will wield over them.

“There is opportunity for the medical community in their prescribing and using the prescription drug monitoring program and for parents to be informed and to safeguard their prescriptions,” Day said.

ENTIRE COMMUNITY

Drugs have become so entrenched in society that you can take any drug, prescription to illegal drugs such as heroin, and cut it across all demographics, Weatherford said.

The Drug Enforcement Agency released a National Heroin Threat Assessment report, which shows heroin use and the availability of it is on the rise. DEA officials said heroin is also causing more overdose deaths than at any time in the last decade. Federal officials said the heroin user population is growing at a faster rate than any other drug. And police here say it’s the worst ever.

According to the DEA report, heroin users now are usually younger, more affluent and more diverse than ever before.

“Misuse, abuse and addiction — those three stages — they don’t pick a socio-economic level,” Day said. “It ’s not those people over there. It’s not a police issue or a school issue or a faith issue. It’s not one part of our community or another part of our community. It’s all of our issue.”

“Our decisions affect more than just ourselves,” added Wilson Police Sgt. Eric Kearney.

jjimison@wilsontimes.com | 265-7813

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