It didn’t take dead bodies piling up outside the offices of Criminal Justice Ministry for the caseworkers there to know St. Louis had a heroin problem.
But the bodies, riddled with bullets, they did pile up.
Two were dumped in the alley east of CJM’s offices on Park Avenue. Two others were shot in a car just a block to the east. Yet another man was shot and killed in his car at the intersection of Tucker Boulevard and Chouteau Avenue.
The common denominator was heroin.
“There’s a turf war going on,” says Eric Schultz, who is a caseworker at CJM and helps men leaving prison find a place to rent. For Schultz, and his co-workers, it’s nothing new.
All of them have struggled with their own drug demons. Most have been to prison. Schultz was a CJM client before he was an employee. These are men who have seen the scourge of heroin up close.
Schultz lost a girlfriend and one of his best friends to heroin overdoses. Aaron Laxton lost a nephew and a niece. And David Bollinger, who helps men who have served out their prison sentences get reintegrated into society?
“I’ve lost everybody I grew up with,” he says. On March 12 last year, he buried his brother.
So pardon the fact that they see the current wave of publicity over heroin addiction and death as an opportunity.
“The heroin epidemic in St. Louis is at a tipping point,” says Laxton, the director of client services at CJM. “All the right people are starting to die.”
What he means — and it would sound crass if not for the fact that these men cared about heroin addiction when it was only killing blacks in the city — is this:
“When white people from West County are starting to die, people start to care.”
Laxton is hoping to take advantage of the increased focus on the heroin problem.
Through a $60,000 grant through AIDS United, he’s working to raise support for the idea of legalizing a “needle exchange” program in St. Louis. Most users of heroin, if they stay alive long enough, gravitate toward taking the drug intravenously, often through a syringe. Once a junkie has a syringe, he or she tends to hold on to it, Laxton says, increasing the opportunity for the transmission of HIV and hepatitis.
The idea of a needle-exchange program is not just to get rid of the “dirty rigs” to reduce the transmission of various other diseases, but also to introduce drug addicts to treatment. Once they come in to get a clean syringe, whether at CJM or some other organization, there is an opportunity for interaction with a caseworker who might help direct the addict to treatment.
Various federal studies have shown needle exchange programs reduce the transmission of disease and do not increase drug use.
But the politics of passing such a law is tough because, at its core, it treats the disease and ignores the violation of law.
This year, state Rep. Holly Rehder, R-Sikeston, filed a bill that would legalize needle exchange in Missouri. Under current law, possession of a syringe, even if it’s clean, could be charged as a possession of drug paraphernalia violation. The bill hasn’t had a hearing and won’t pass this year.
It’s a start, Laxton says.
“The best science tells us that needle exchange programs actually reduce drug use because you engage people in care,” he says.
There’s also the cost benefit. In 2012, taxpayers spent more than $25 million in Medicare and Medicaid costs for HIV and hepatitis hospital charges that were a result of drug use. Eventually, budget-crimping lawmakers might be moved by the opportunity to save money.
The needle-exchange idea is hardly a panacea to the heroin epidemic. It’s just one of many tools that those people working in the trenches want to have at their disposal.
Others include more widespread access to Narcan, which can reverse the effect of heroin and save lives. It’s now being carried by more and more law enforcement officials in the St. Louis region.
Rehder is also pushing a bill that would end Missouri’s status as the only state in the nation without a prescription drug monitoring program, which would seek to limit doctor-shopping for opioids, often an entryway into heroin use. Laxton also wants to see strengthened Samaritan laws, to encourage those who experience a friend’s overdose to call for help without fear of reprisal.
“Nobody does heroin alone,” Laxton says.
The men who help ex-cons at CJM know they’ll continue to deal with drug addiction up close because of their clientele. But that’s not their only concern. They see the spread of the drug, and the increase in violence, and they believe now is the time to deal with some of the root causes.
“It’s in the schools. It’s at the parties. It’s cheap,” says Bollinger. “It’s the new gateway drug.”