While America was diverted by homegrown terrorism, economic stress and mass shootings, another scourge quietly moved to the fore.
Drug addiction is nothing new. What is new is which part of the population it strikes. All have been hit at different times but right now, it seems to be middle-aged white Americans battling opioids.
Opioids come in many forms, including the street drug heroin and garden-variety prescription pills found in bathroom cabinets. The latter have been making headlines and dubbed a gateway to addiction.
President Trump declared America is in a state of emergency. But while the battle rages, real stories are left untold in every pocket of America.
Addiction can happen to anyone and it can be conquered by anyone. Just ask 57-year-old Allen, a former Houston police officer. He fell prey to opioid addiction not under a bridge, but in a dentist’s chair.
“I had some pretty extensive dental work done to my teeth. And the doctor prescribed me Vicodin for the pain. It started extremely innocently,” he said.
Allen had struggled with alcohol abuse since his early twenties, a compulsion that was still with him at the time of his oral surgery.
“I'd been lookin' for a cure for a hangover my whole life. And I've never found one, other than time,” he said. “I took two of those little Vicodin and within ten minutes, my hangover was over. And I [thought], ‘Oh, my God, I've discovered somethin’.’”
Allen’s deadly revelation spurred him to seek more pills. He lied to his dentist to get refills.
“I actually had two root canals for no reason. There was nothing wrong with my teeth. But I would fake toothaches to keep him [the dentist] goin’.”
Allen, who was working as a patrol officer at the time, transferred to the attack unit of the police department.
“I loved it. Lots of surveillance, undercover work. Some of the guys at work noticed that I was slurrin' my words. And they asked me about it. And I told 'em I was takin' pain medication for my dental work.”
Not long after that, Allen’s addiction took a more destructive turn.
“I run into a cousin of my mine that I hadn't seen in a long time, who introduced me to a more powerful pain pill called Lorcets and also Somas. I'll never forget what he told me. He says, ‘Hey, Allen, welcome to the dark side.’”
“I always wondered to myself, doesn't a doctor take an oath to protect and preserve life?”
Running low on his mélange of pills, Allen went back to his cousin who introduced him to a reliable pill source who would feed his addiction for years to come.
“I had a $250 a day habit that I really couldn’t afford.”
“I'm askin' my cousin, "Where do you get these things?" And he said, ‘Well, you gotta go to these pill mill doctors.’”
Pill mills are places where licensed physicians sell prescription drugs under the table for profit. At the height of his addiction, Allen was taking more than 50 pills a day. He lost a tremendous amount of weight and went to multiple doctors every month.
“I always wondered to myself, doesn't a doctor take an oath to protect and preserve life?” Allen told Fox News. “I had a $250 a day habit that I really couldn’t afford.”
His expensive habit led him to leave his job with the Houston Police Department.
“I used to tell everybody that I when my job was no longer fun, it was time to go. And I told that lie so much, I believed it. But the reason I retired is that I needed money. So I did. And they handed me a monthly pension that I earned. And they handed me some money that I had in another account. And that money almost killed me.”
According to Allen, the pill mills that sustained his addiction are rampant throughout Houston. Dr. Mike Leath, the medical director at Memorial Hermann Prevention and Recovery Center, also in Houston, confirms that.
“In the past ten years,we've seen an increase in opiates overall. Let's turn the calendar back a few years. We used to have these pill mills. Matter of fact, they were so prevalent a cocktail or a combination of three drugs, Xanax, hydrocodone, and Soma was actually dubbed The Houston Cocktail,” said Dr. Leath.
Dr. Leath, who treated Allen, also says while prescription pill abuse persists, heroin use is on the rise due to its relative affordability.
“Only the people with a lotta money could afford to buy the pills, so the people without so much money, they couldn't afford to buy the pills. So rather than just walk away from the drug, they switched to heroin. Heroin had gotten better. Heroin had gotten cheaper. Heroin had gotten easier to acquire here in Texas. And then the heroin started gettin' tainted with a drug called fentanyl. Not only have we seen an uptick in heroin use, we've seen a marked uptick in deaths due to the tainted heroin,” Leath said.
It can sometimes be difficult to find someone untouched by the epidemic, but some have been harder hit than others.
“It seems that without question we're seein' far more white males than any other part of the sector of the population that are using, dependent on heroin,” Leath explained.
“It is very, very addictive. And it's killing people."
The opioid crisis is far-reaching and jurisdictions nationwide are hoping crackdown responses will be just as pervasive.
Countering the Houston pill mill operation is Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan. He has filed suit against drug companies, pharmacists, and doctors.
"...probably the worst part of all this in some ways is these big pharmaceutical companies like Purdue know exactly, and knew exactly, how dangerous these drugs could be."
“They [doctors] have prescribed hundreds if not thousands of opioid prescriptions, most of the time without even seeing the proposed patients,” Ryan told Fox News.
“One hundred and fifteen people a day are dying of opioid overdoses. That's more people than are killed in car wrecks,” he said.
“It is very, very addictive. And it's killing people. And probably the worst part of all this in some ways is these big pharmaceutical companies like Purdue know exactly, and knew exactly, how dangerous these drugs could be. And instead of having safeguards at their corporate level, they instead put profits again over people,” said Ryan.
Ryan hopes to help people recover and regain their lives much like Allen who, now sober for five and a half years, sought and found redemption.
He recalled feeling “ousted from the brotherhood of the police department” because of his drug use. Then at two years sober, Allen was invited to a colleague’s funeral.
“After the funeral was over, I was outside. And I heard the honor guard yell out an order, ‘All officers attention.’ I got to stand with those guys, shoulder to shoulder.”
At that moment, Allen returned to the fold.
“Thank God that I got pulled outta the depths of this deal. And if I can do it, anybody can do it—anybody. I promise you.”