Skagit County is not immune to the ravages of heroin use that is damaging ever-younger victims and their families across the country.
Meet three Skagit Valley families whose lives have been forever changed by drug abuse.
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Terry* was the classic all-American boy, a rising soccer star. The young college student had adoring parents, a loving girlfriend, the body of a disciplined athlete and a scholarship to Skagit Valley College. His mother, Alice*, had moved the family to Skagit County for a fresh start and some small-town values.
In college, Terry began to struggle with marijuana, pills and alcohol. He stole money from a bank account shared with his mom. He began to lose interest in soccer. Then his mom got a call.
“His girlfriend came to me and said he’s stolen $1,000 and he’s on heroin,” Alice said. “I just fell apart.”
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Tina* and her husband Greg* raised their kids in church, warned them of the dangers of drugs and gave them all the support they could.
“We did everything that you could imagine that was right,” said Tina.
David* was a loner who wanted desperately to connect with others, but found making friends difficult. He hung out with other high school outcasts. Years later he would be diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and obsessive compulsive disorder. When he was 15, his cousins introduced him to pot. After that he began to abuse drugs and alcohol. Numerous treatment programs seemed to help little.
“(Greg) and I were on a cruise in the middle of the Caribbean, and we got a phone call,” Tina said.
They were told their son had been spotted smoking heroin. Devastated, Tina stayed in bed for 24 hours.
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Shannon Bonnette’s son, Jesse, started out smoking pot. Soon he tried heroin, and it took hold of him. Deeply ashamed of his addiction, he hid it from many, but remained completely open about it with his family.
“He told me it is the lowest thing you could do to yourself,” Shannon said.
He was a friend to the friendless and planned to pursue a career in psychology to help others. He didn’t have kids but loved playing with his nieces and nephews.
Just more than four years ago, it seemed like he had a handle on his struggle. He’d been clean for about a year. He was hanging out with someone who had few friends. They and some others had a few beers. Hours later, Shannon got a knock on her door. She refused to believe what she was told. Her son was gone.
“I didn’t see this coming at all,” Shannon said. “I just said, ‘No, God wouldn’t do this to me.’”
Between 2000 and 2010, according to a study by the University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute, the sale and use of heroin exploded across the country, including Skagit County. Between 2000 and 2002, there were fewer than 20 items of heroin evidence sent by Skagit law enforcement for analysis. Ten years later, that number exceeded 80. Between 2000 and 2002, 16 people died in the county from opioid use. Ten years later, it was 36.
The Skagit County Sheriff’s Office said the surge in heroin use is closely tied to potent, prescription painkillers like Oxycontin or Vicodin. Heroin is a cheaper, more powerful alternative some people turn to when those painkiller prescriptions expire. And it’s often easier to get than tightly regulated pills.
Sheriff’s investigators say heroin is supplied primarily by Mexican cartels that smuggle it through the Mexico-California border. The drugs get to Washington along the I-5 corridor through California and Oregon. Dealers then distribute the heroin throughout the state to criminal groups, street gangs and local, independent dealers to sell at a retail level. The current price for an ounce of heroin is approximately $400, but an ounce of pure heroin can cost as much as $1,000.
In February, one dealer was sentenced by Skagit Superior Court to seven years in prison for selling a pound of pure heroin to undercover officers for $17,200.
Lt. Chris Cammock has been with the Mount Vernon Police Department for 25 years. He said drug trends have gone up and down, with cocaine and methamphetamine each seeing their years of popularity. But heroin has been trending upward in recent years. According to Cammock and other law enforcement, this is because the drug is cheap, strong and extremely addictive.
“It is a single or a double use, and the addiction is in effect,” Cammock said.
He said users are demanding increasingly pure doses of heroin. And when users overdose, investigators working those cases are now looking at those who supply the strong heroin as being responsible for deaths, Cammock said.
Jim Follman and Sonya Lohr are chemical dependency professionals at Follman Agency, a substance abuse recovery and counseling center in Burlington. Ten years ago, they rarely saw heroin users. Now they are common and young. Most of the agency’s heroin clients now are under age 25. They’ve seen addicts as young as 12 and 13.
Cammock recalled a 2010 case from Snohomish County in Stanwood where school officials discovered nearly 50 Stanwood High School students were heroin addicts.
And forget the scary old image of an addict shooting up in an alley. Today, most users opt to smoke their heroin. Lohr said this is more comfortable for people who are used to smoking cigarettes or marijuana.
Follman and Lohr explained the road many take to the drug. The pattern is easy to spot. Someone gets hooked on prescription painkillers after an injury or recovering from surgery. Others steal their pills. After those are gone, users go in search of something cheap and powerful.
“It’s like the difference between Everclear (95 percent grain alcohol) and a beer,” Lohr said.
Addiction happens quickly, but stopping is very hard.
Follman said treatment programs that boast a 20 percent success rate are considered incredible. Lohr said getting through detox is an epic struggle. There’s vomiting, pain sensitivity, difficulty sleeping and flulike symptoms.
“It feels like all your bones have turned into razors and are trying to cut their way out,” Lohr said.
Frustrated but hopeful
Alice, Tina and Shannon’s kids started using drugs in high school or college. They’ve lost jobs, friendships, girlfriends, cars, scholarships and more. They have gone through many different treatment programs, detox facilities and therapy sessions.
Treatments cost tens of thousands of dollars and even finding a slot is a challenge, assuming insurance covers it. While some do a good job of ridding the user’s system of drugs, finding modern, long-term care is impossible because it simply doesn’t exist, they say.
And on top of that, misconceptions and stigma about drug addiction often garner little sympathy for families and make change difficult.
“We’ve been doing it so wrong,” said Alice.
After her son’s seven inpatient programs, she is no longer naive about the outlook. Last month, at 27 he celebrated eight months sober, but she knows the battle isn’t over. It wasn’t so long ago he stole her wedding ring and sold it for drug money or disappeared onto the streets of Bellingham for so long that she thought he was dead.
She believes the entire drug treatment system in America is 50 years out of date. It is more concerned with locking up addicts or detoxing them than addressing their individual medical needs.
Just this month, Tina’s son, now 23, was kicked out of his treatment program, leaving her frustrated. He’s already done three outpatient programs and suboxone drug-replacement programs. When the pain and shame has become too much for him to bear, he’s contemplated suicide.
“I can’t get rid of this pain, and it hurts so much,” Tina said.
Jesse’s story ended in 2009 in Mount Vernon with a group of friends, a few beers and some heroin. He relapsed. Maybe it was a bad batch, too strong, too much or a dozen other complications. He couldn’t be revived. Maybe the paramedics could have got there sooner. Maybe Shannon could have done something. These are thoughts she replayed in her mind over and over.
“When you lose your child, you feel like you didn’t do enough,” she said. “We call them the ‘would haves, should haves, could haves.’”
She and the other mothers have found peace in their faith and in sharing their stories with each other. They are members of the local chapter of The Addict’s Mom, which connects mothers of drug addicts as a support group.
Shannon said she hopes that others who hear her family’s story ask themselves one question, a question that would change perspectives, opinions and judgments: “What if that was my child?”
* Editor’s note: Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of recovering heroin users and their families.