Gary is unemployed, homeless, drug addicted. For 26 years. While others go to work, Gary takes pills. For breakfast. One morning in spring 2017, he doesn’t have one on hand. The result: pain. Again. But something is different this time. Gary soon no longer feels his legs. The intensity increases. It has never been so bad. Gary can no longer. Do not want anymore. Then he makes the best decision of his life: he picks up the phone.
Morgantown, West Virginia, USA, almost three years later: Gary smiles. He is wearing a hat, black sweater, blue jeans. Only the limping walk reminds of its past. “I called here back then,” says Gary, pointing to the West Virginia University hospital entrance. «I cried, I couldn’t speak properly. I pleaded. The woman understood me. I told her I had to go into this withdrawal program. Immediately.”
Gary is one of many. In 2018, over ten million Americans misused opioids. Around 400,000 people have been victims of the opioid crisis since 1999. West Virginia is the hotspot of this epidemic that has nothing to do with a virus. No other U.S. state has a higher death rate. “West Virginia is an industrialized country. Many people do physically demanding work here. They complain of pain and were the perfect victims of the pharmaceutical industry, »explains James Berry, psychiatrist at the university hospital in Morgantown.
Praise to Trump, criticism of Obama
BLICK visited the West Virginia drug hotspot in March, just before the corona pandemic broke out in the United States. At that time you still felt hope. Good news came for the first time in two decades: in 2018 there were fewer opioid deaths than in the previous year for the first time since the early 1990s. In West Virginia and nationwide. Now Berry fears a further increase in drug victims. «The corona pandemic is poison for our efforts. The worst thing that can happen to an addict in treatment is isolation. And that’s exactly what everyone has to do now. »
Berry expects American politics to act quickly. “I am anxious. The focus is currently on the corona pandemic. The opioid epidemic would have deserved just as much attention, “he says. Donald Trump has promised to fight the epidemic. “He did more before Corona than his predecessor,” says Berry.
The US President declared a medical emergency due to the opioid epidemic a few months after taking office. In the fall of 2019, his government announced that it would free up $ 6 billion to fight the crisis over a two-year period. $ 1.5 billion will go directly to the states. «A symbolic act and a bit more money overall. Trump’s effort is commendable, better than Barack Obama’s commitment. But it is far from enough to get the epidemic under control, ”says Berry. And the outlook is bleak: Due to the corona pandemic and the subsequent recession, hardly any money will flow in the future.
The presidential election will be held in the United States on November 3, 2020. For the Democrats, Joe Biden (77) is likely to challenge Donald Trump (73). What has changed in the Trump era since 2016 and what challenges is the country facing today? BLICK looks into the big and formative topics in a loose series. Our US correspondent Nicola Imfeld travels through various states of America wherever the corona pandemic allows it and takes a look at the situation on site.
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From the street to the prison and back
High Street, center of Morgantown: the name says it – the street is a melting pot of drug addicts. Gary, now 46 years old, also lived and dealt here. As a 17-year-old, he is on the wrong track. Because of the pharmaceutical industry and his doctor at the time. «After hernia surgery I was prescribed Percocet. I got practically as many pills as I wanted for six months. » Gary becomes addicted to the drug, a powerful opioid according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
When he no longer legally receives pills, he looks for them on the street. He’ll find it quickly. “Because doctors prescribed these drugs in large quantities in the 1990s, people store tons of them at home,” says James Berry. The result is a huge black market – people addicted, the streets flooded with pills. Gary: “You could buy it anywhere. It wasn’t a problem. »
The vicious cycle begins: Gary loses job and friends. After a few years his family too. He becomes homeless and ends up in prison for three years because he has stolen several times from his grandparents and has issued checks on their behalf. After jail, Gary becomes a dealer. He has been selling cocaine, heroin and many other things for twelve years. He himself stays true to the pills. Unlike many others, he never switches to heroin – a much cheaper opioid. “That saved my life,” says Gary today.
Trump takes advantage of opioid epidemic for his border wall
James Berry has been treating patients like Gary for years. They are admitted to a hospital withdrawal program, initially having to carry out compulsory activities daily and later weekly. Prerequisite for admission: clean. No drugs, no alcohol either. “At the beginning we naturally help people so that they can detach themselves from the opioids. But then we demand that every test is negative, »says Berry. His hospital recently opened a second clinic to increase capacity. «It’s worse than ever. And unfortunately the epidemic is far from over. »
The issue had already faded into the background in Washington before the corona pandemic. If so, Trump uses the opioid crisis to promote the construction of his border wall. The US president claims that most of the drugs come into the country via the Mexican border. That is why a border wall is so important. Berry said: “It is tragic how politics exploits the subject. The opioid epidemic was triggered by American pharmaceutical companies. Not through the Mexicans. »
“I’m afraid of a relapse”
Meanwhile, Gary is enjoying his new life. “My second life, which God gave me,” he says. It has been clean for almost 1000 days. He has a fiance who visits the same rehab clinic as he does. Gary also has his own sports bar, which he opened in the center of Morgantown. “The best food in town,” he emphasizes. It is currently closed because of Corona, Gary had to be inventive. “I’m just delivering food now.”
At the age of 46, Gary has two legs in life today, but he also says: “I’m always afraid that I could suddenly relapse.” An addict is never all over the mountain. But Gary has come a long way. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are still standing at the foot of the mountain. And will probably die before they can muster the strength for the long and rocky hike.
Around 68,000 people died from a drug overdose in the U.S. in 2018 – over 46,000 from opioids. For several years now, more Americans have died from opoids than from car accidents and weapons. The epidemic has even caused life expectancy in America to drop for the first time since World War II.
Opioids are synthetically produced substances that have a morphine-like effect. Heroin is the best known opioid. There are numerous industrially manufactured opioids, such as the drugs Oxycodone and Hydrocodone, which are widely prescribed as pain relievers in the United States – and are also readily available on the black market.
At the beginning of the opioid crisis was the prescription pain reliever Oxycontin, which the Sackler family launched with their company Purdue Pharma in 1996. The fact that the problem of addiction was already known in the 1920s was successfully suppressed. Purdue aggressively promoted the pain reliever to the doctors – as an analgesic and supposedly harmless. «That was deliberate manipulation. The family of entrepreneurs knew exactly about the dangers, »says James Berry, a psychiatrist at the university hospital in Morgantown (West Virginia).
Synthetic opioids are the third largest epidemic in US history. Only the Spanish flu in 1918 and the AIDS epidemic, each with almost half a million victims, claimed more lives. The culprits are now held accountable. In Oklahoma, prosecutors have sued pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson, who manufactured opioid pain relievers for the mass market, for $ 17 billion. Class actions have been filed in other states and many civil lawsuits are still ongoing. (nim)
The presidential election will be held in the United States on November 3, 2020. Acting President Donald Trump is aiming for a second term. All current developments regarding the elections and candidates are always available in the news ticker and all articles on the topic can be found here on the US election page.