Louisville’s Heroin Epidemic

Heroin addiction touches every part of the city, but no matter their socio-economic group, all addicts are trapped in a system that criminalizes and profits from their addiction.

Paul J. is a 34-year-old recovering heroin addict recently returned to his hometown of Louisville, Ky. For Paul, the River City is the scene of many crimes committed and horrors suffered. After just completing a 90-day treatment program in Alabama, Paul still possesses a perpetual hesitation in all of his mannerisms, his expression one of shock and bewilderment, as if he’d survived a home invasion or head on collision. When asked what the drug felt like, why one would go to the absurd lengths (i.e. financial and social ruin, the risk of incarceration and death) to continue using, why anyone possessing even a minor ability to reason would trade their entire lives for a substance, Paul takes a long moment to respond. He squints and his eyes fade a bit as if reminiscing of a love affair or a beloved, now deceased pet. 

He finally responds, “It’s like fame and fortune should make you feel, but don’t.” While Paul might not have firsthand experience with fame, he knows wealth well. His family, all of them except his mother now relocated to Cincinnati, own horse farms in Lexington, a Louisville construction company, and over 50 rental properties that Paul has helped maintain since his teens. Paul is a skilled carpenter, electrician, and, despite his life of privilege, possesses an ironclad work ethic. Even in the midst of his most harrowing days of addiction, Paul’s performance on the job remained steady every day. He claims he had no choice, that he refused to allow his addiction to keep him from supporting his wife and his stepdaughter. “All junkies aren’t homeless or unemployable. I quit to save my life, not my bank account. I could have gone on a lot longer without anyone finding out. But I couldn’t live with it anymore. 

“Dope doesn’t discriminate.” Paul explains. “And it also equalizes. It brings everyone who falls prey to it down to the same level. I’d never stolen anything from anyone until the first time I found myself broke, dope sick and unable to think of a good lie to tell a family member or friend in order to borrow some money. There’s probably no more pathetic feeling on earth. I already owed money to most of my friends and my parents were beginning to get skeptical, wondering why someone who made good money at work and allegedly had a plentiful savings account always found themselves in need of 40 or 50 bucks.  So, I helped a fellow junkie steal some paint supplies and construction equipment from his work and we returned them to Lowe’s who in turn gave us a gift card – since we didn’t have a receipt they wouldn’t hand over cash. The final stage of our criminal master plan simply involved getting on Craigslist and finding someone who bought such giftcards. They’d usually buy them for half of their worth, which in turn, netted me and my partner in misdemeanors four bags of dope. A month later I was stealing from my own parents, my fiancée, her parents, even shoplifting every time I saw a low-risk opportunity.”

Strangely enough, Paul doesn’t have so much as a speeding ticket on his criminal record. 

Which begs the question, why did he quit?

“Simple,” Paul responds. “I couldn’t get high anymore. I was running around like an ass-burned ape, stealing, selling everything I owned, scamming people, conning loved ones, just so I could stay well. I’d shoot a hundred dollars’ worth of heroin, some days an entire gram. I just got tired.”

Paul also got lucky. Most users, simply by the law averages, especially after years under the influence of opiates, have an extensive criminal record. 

As Paul himself admitted after displaying complete awe over his good fortune, “If you commit crimes on a daily basis, especially in the increasingly sloppy manner of dope fiends, it’s just a matter of time.”

The LMPD released some staggering statistics at the end of 2013. Between 2008 and 2012, heroin-related arrests increased by 2,334 percent (from 32 to 779 arrests) and the amount of heroin seized increased by 6,688 percent (from 104.4 grams to 7,087 grams), marking an early acknowledgment of what can only be described as the city’s most paralyzing drug epidemic.

If someone like Paul, a tax-paying, hard-worker with a vast amount of resources, can’t keep up with the costs of a life on heroin, how could someone in poverty ever hope to survive or avoid imprisonment? If Paul had to steal to feed his habit, obviously an addict earning minimum wage or, worse, unemployed, must rely on theft. 

Nick C., a graduate of Lexington, Kentucky’s Hope Center, now works at a rehab facility in Louisville, Ky., where he moved to be with his girlfriend, also in recovery, and her young son. “I wouldn’t have quit if I’d had another choice. But I was only given two, prison or treatment. I’m not saying the justice system handles the drug problem ideally, but I’d likely be dead if I hadn’t been arrested.”

Nick who also worked at the Hope Center for a year following his graduation cites a dramatic shift in regards to patients and their drugs of choice. “When I got clean, two or three years ago, most addicts who showed up at the Hope Center, all of their earthly belongings in a bag, homeless, penniless, their lives in ruins, had lost everything to meth or pain pills. I was in the minority. There were only maybe a handful of other guys going through heroin withdrawal. When laws made pain killers harder to get on the street or through doctor shopping, heroin became the leading drug of choice among the people I dealt with.”

The Hope Center, like hundreds of treatment facilities across the globe follow the recovery model first implemented by Louisville’s own Healing Place. Many heroin addicts avoid humbling themselves to enter the doors of The Healing Place’s detox unit on W. Main St. simply because there is no medical assistance with the withdrawal process.

“To this day,” Nick says, “I try not to be too judgmental of those who get on methadone or try to other methods of tapering off. I quit cold turkey, and, personally, believe that the memory of that miserable first week in detox has helped me stay clean. I don’t ever want to be in that condition again.”

There is a cork board on the wall at the Healing Place, a similar one at the Hope Center, displaying pictures of every man that came through detox, started using again and ended up dying. It’s called The Death Board. Over the past calendar year, 26 names have been added to the Louisville board.

“I know if I go back out,” Nick says, “there’s a high probability that I’ll end up on the Death Wall.”

 Garret Z., an active heroin addict who has spent over seven years incarcerated for possession, all for drug-related crimes such as possession with the intent to distribute and theft, argues the opposite. “The physical withdrawal is nothing compared to the much longer lasting mental issues that follow detox.” Garret, 34, currently working odd jobs to make ends meet, supporting his habit however he can, admits, “I’ve gotten through detox dozens of times, even put several months of clean time together. But the depression that comes with knowing I’ll never feel that good again, it always gets me.”

Drug addiction is an extremely private thing. It’s like an extramarital love affair or a stigma-ridden fetish that could get a person fired or publicly ostracized.

Chris, a scholar on the detriments of drug abuse, would look kind of like a younger Mr. Clean if he dressed well and didn’t wink a lot. He has been trying to achieve long-term sobriety for a decade, a year being the longest amount of continuous clean time he has been able to put together. When one of his fellow recovering addicts caught him walking away from a drug deal, Chris asked his old friend not to tell anyone, that it was “none of their business,” referring to the sacred, private nature of addiction.

Growing up on Chicago’s West Side, Chris was 12 years old when he started using drugs – marijuana at first and then, soon after, pharmaceuticals. His addiction continued progressing viciously and rapidly for the next four years.

“LSD was 14,” Chris says. “Cocaine was 15. And heroin was 16.”

It is reported that two-thirds of all drug addicts were abused physically or sexually during childhood. Though Chris does not blame his choices on anyone but himself, he believes that environment could have contributed to his addiction.

“When you’re surrounded by it,” Chris says, “when the economy of the neighborhood you live in is rooted in drugs and you see a criminal lifestyle with a certain air of glamour, it’s hard not to be influenced. Some of those drug dealers are getting hot girlfriends. There’s a counter culture kind of thing going on too.”

He has been clean and sober for nearly six months and almost breaks down when speaking of his ex-girlfriend and the three children she mothered, his babies. He has little contact with the kids and prays twice a day that a relationship will one day develop void of custody hearings and accusations.

Currently, Chris lives in a halfway house, his rent exchanged for janitorial work at the church that provides shelter for the addicts and alcoholics. He has completed more than half of his recovery program and spends most of his free time helping others who suffer from the same affliction – either on the phone or in person – giving them support and walking with them through countless dark nights of recovery.

After describing the several bottoms his disease brought him to – admitting to twice using drugs with pregnant women – he goes on to list the fellow addicts who have died, while he somehow survived years of flagrant crack and heroin abuse. Without too much thought he is able to think of a dozen and then, surprised, one who is still alive, Grant, a former best friend who sometimes allowed Chris to sleep on his couch.

Grant, who himself still struggles with sobriety, is 35. He used to be emaciated to the point where a passerby would assume malnutrition. He would sweat profusely, an attribute which gained him the nickname “Stain” for the pit stains under his arms. After two straight years of muling drugs for about every dealer from the West End to Shively, pocketing 10 bucks a run – money that went straight into his arm – he decided to give methadone another try. The last time he stayed clean for any significant amount of time – two and a half years – began with The Center for Behavioral Health, a methadone clinic in Louisville’s East End. 

“Methadone kept me off dope,” Grant admits. “But it’s a $120 a week. It’s far more addictive. And the withdrawal can kill you, unlike heroin.” And if a client at the center does not make their weekly payment, they are cut off. “It makes you realize that they’re just doing the same thing as the dope man, only it’s legal. But, it is less expensive and, if you follow their program, keeps you out of prison and alive.”

Most patients at the clinic can count on a two-year process, despite the fact that the original model for recovery only lasted a few months. “They’re in it for the money,” Grant says. “Like everyone in the game.”

Grant has a college degree and once owned a nice home in a nice neighborhood with a nice car in the driveway. Now, a renter in a severely more dangerous, less prosperous neighborhood, he has only recently begun working again and just purchased a beat-up pickup truck. According to greasy-haired Grant, the number of cocaine and heroin dealers in the Highlands area has tripled over the last three years. A lot of his own business included running eight balls and even ounces from Portland to Bardstown Road and Baxter Avenue.

Grant did not check himself into rehab nor did he join any 12-step program. His wife, still in active addiction, supports his decision to quit. He first tried the methadone program when he was 20 years old, taking a number before planting himself in the fluorescently lit, white-on-white waiting room. The number would stay the same, attached like a cancer to his name in their files. The number was less than 500, making Grant one of the first 1,000 people to ever visit the clinic. When he returned less than a month ago to try and get clean again with their help, the women behind the front desk were shocked when they looked up his file, asking him how much of the last 15 years he’d been using. He said about two-thirds.

The gray-haired woman behind the desk, her face lit by the white screen of the computer said, “Honey, I’m sooo sorry.”

The last drug deal Grant took part in involved delivering a large amount of both crack and cocaine to the heir of a Louisville dynasty. Hours later, after dropping off the narcotics, Grant answered a phone call in which the heir, weeping, admitted to not having eaten or even left his apartment in a week. Grant, the drug mule with a heart, brought the addict a burger and fries from Wendy’s and gave him some phone numbers of people who could help him get clean. 

Grant, still kicked, remains remorseful of the worry and pain he has put his family through.

“I used to blame anyone I could for my addiction,” Grant tells fellow recovering addicts. “My parents. My exes. My childhood. The selfishness of man. This shithole of a world we live in.”

This tortured soul, his arms swollen, still often sweating profusely, battling a hard bout with Hepatitis C, which he will have to treat with interferon if he wants to survive it, now only blames Grant.

 “I haven’t used in weeks,” Grant continues. “And every week it gets easier to score dope because I’m saving more of my money and the city just keeps getting worse. There are like six dealers I know of in a three block radius of my house and since I work in Portland and the South End, I can also find it without much headache during the daytime. I have no idea how I’m still clean.”

Short term heroin withdrawal can be combated using a number of methods. Sadly, hospitals are unlikely to provide medical assistance unless one’s life is in jeopardy which is only the case when dealing with alcohol, methadone and benzo detoxification. Heroin detox, while miserable, usually does not threaten one’s life. Therefore, locally, the only facility offering short term medical assistance to opiate addicts at JADAC (Jefferson County Alcohol and Drug Abuse Center) which currently has a multi-month waiting list and does not accept Medicaid or Medicare plans. 

Here’s where an addict really faces the harsh reality of his or her condition: their options, aside from white knuckling it, are suboxone and methadone clinics, both expensive and long-term.  While any suboxone clinic offers literature that cites the drug’s usefulness in regards to quickly tapering off opiates, most clinics only offer long-term treatment, prescribing up to three eight-milligram doses a day for as long as the addict continues to pay the clinic’s monthly fee, usually between $350 and $450 a month. Like Grant said, “It’s all about the money.”

Editor’s Note:

A portion of this story was previously published by The Highlander in "Whole of the Law," an article also written by Jonathan Ashley.