OXFORD — Daniel Hughes found out just last week that Aug. 31 was International Overdose Awareness day. He made big plans.
Hughes, director of an Oxford drug rehab program, put out the word on Facebook. He rented the Juke Box, a concert venue in Oxford. He ordered food for 500 people and set out chairs for more than 300. On Thursday night, the place was packed.
“Crisis brings people together,” said Hughes, who runs Seven Springs Ministries. “That’s why all these people are here.”
Hughes and his crowd of hundreds gathered Thursday night to call attention to drug overdoses and the opioid crisis — a problem they say is discussed far too little.
There were more than 52,000 overdose deaths nationwide in 2015, more than gun deaths and car crashes combined, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Public health experts say a 20-year trend of doctors over-prescribing prescription drugs may be to blame. Large numbers of people became addicted to prescription drugs first, the theory goes, and many switched to heroin as states passed laws to cut off the prescription drug supply.
“It’s just like any other product,” said Allen George, commander of the Seventh Judicial Circuit’s Major Crimes Task Force, in a telephone interview before Hughes’ event. “You create a demand, and when there’s a vacuum, someone steps in to fill it.”
Local residents says the problem is killing people in our midst, though the deaths do go largely unnoticed.
“I know that in Calhoun County, heroin isn’t hard to come by,” said Angela Cheshire, 53, of Wadley. “It’s more common in that area than marijuana.”
Cheshire said her son, Josh Ezell, died of an overdose in Anniston in July. He was 33. Ezell worked as a meatcutter in local grocery stores, Cheshire said, but turned to heroin increasingly after his divorce.
“He worked,” said Cheshire in a telephone interview Thursday. “He was a regular guy. You never would have known if you met him.”
Calhoun County Coroner Pat Brown said the overdose problem is indeed growing.
“It’s three times what it was when I started,” said Brown, who was first elected to office in 2006.
Brown, like other state and local officials, said the best way to track opioid use is not through overdose deaths but through local emergency officials’ use of naloxone, a drug used to bring patients back from the brink of an overdose death.
Records from the Alabama Department of Public Health show that naloxone use is more common in Calhoun and other counties in the Appalachian foothills than it is in most of the rest of the state. Still, the top community by far for naloxone use is Walker County, a once mining-dependent area west of Birmingham.
Tommy Letson, 65, a former addict who now works at Seven Springs Ministries, said the current drugs on the market are deadlier than any he’s ever seen — as if the dealers were poisoning people on purpose.
“If I’m a drug dealer, I don’t want to kill you, because you can buy more from me later,” he said. “But with this stuff, it’s almost like they’re trying to kill people.”
George said that’s just part of the heroin trade. Addicts expect each dose they buy to be roughly as pure as the last dose they bought from the same dealer. When it’s stronger than expected, they overdose.
Add to that the problem of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that’s cheaper than heroin, far more potent by weight, and often sold by dealers who claim it’s some other drug.
President Donald Trump in August declared opioid abuse a national emergency, though federal officials have yet to follow up with specifics of what that declaration means. Gov. Kay Ivey last month appointed a task force to study the opioid problem and suggest solutions. The group holds its first meeting Tuesday.
At Thursday’s meeting, Hughes urged the crowd not to wait for action from Washington.
“The answer we need is in this room,” he told the crowd, which included contingents from several local drug rehab organizations. “The people we need are in this room.”
Other speakers at the event, while not advocating specific policies, called for courage and unity among people in recovery and their families.
“If we don’t release the stigma off each other, that’s the way it will always be,” said Angel Chumbler, director of Starting Point Outreach in Oxford.
Outside the event, local advocates said they welcomed the state task force and hoped to see a plan soon.
George, the police officer, said he’d like to see a law specifically against fentanyl trafficking, to boost penalties for trading in the drug.
George said a 2015 sentencing reform law, designed to reduce prison overpopulation, “isn’t doing us any favors.” The lighter sentences under the bill, he said, have landed some drug traffickers in drug court — a venue typically intended for addicts.
“Trafficking heroin is supposed to lead to a life sentence, but that ain’t happening,” he said.
Hughes said that for addicts, more prison time isn’t the answer.
“We need help for addicts other than locking them up and throwing away the key,” he said.
Cheshire said she hopes drug treatment is a big part of that plan.
“If you really want help, you can’t get it because you can’t afford it,” she said. “Some of these places cost $6,000 a month.”