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“They Are Not Throwaway People”

Expert panelists at The Heroin Epidemic: A Community Conversation reflect on the personal, political and social impacts of heroin and opiate addiction

June 10, 2016

A live recording of The Heroin Epidemic: A Community Conversation panel is available online.

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Penny LeGate grew up in Nebraska. In the heartland of America, the thought of a family member involved in hardcore drug use was beyond her comprehension.

“To think that one day I would grow up and have a child who would be lost to heroin was unthinkable.”

In June, 2012, LeGate’s daughter Marah Williams died of a heroin overdose. She was 19 years old.

“One of the main things I’m trying to do as a parent who has lost a child is to reach out to other parents who say, ‘It will never happen to me,’ and for those it does happen to, to tell them there is no shame, there is no stigma and the way that people die is hiding in the shadows and not talking about it.”

LeGate shared her personal story before a crowd of 100 people convened at the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) for The Heroin Epidemic: A Community Conversation. She was joined on stage by King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg; Molly Carney, executive director of Evergreen Treatment Services; and Caleb Banta-Green, senior research scientist with the University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute. The panelists talked about the challenge of confronting an opiate and heroin epidemic that has become a public health crisis not only in Seattle and King County but throughout the nation.

“People are wired to like opiates,” said Banta-Green. “As opiates began to be prescribed in much greater numbers about 20 years ago, many people who may never have used them otherwise were exposed to them and found out they liked them. We just had an explosion of opiate prescribing. What we know now is that a majority of people who are using heroin say they were hooked on prescription opiates first.”

Banta-Green, LeGate and Carney are part of a 32-member Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force created by King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray in March, 2016. The task force will develop recommendations to address the epidemic, with a final report due in September of this year.

For the criminal justice system, this epidemic has brought change in the approach to dealing with heroin addicts on the street. King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg noted that drug courts and the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, where the focus is to get addicts help if they want it, were developed here and have become models for other major cities.

“There’s a role for the criminal justice system — we find people who are selling heroin for profit, and we have no problem prosecuting them,” said Satterberg.  But he added his office does not see a lot of those cases. Most are cases where one addict is selling a small amount of heroin to another addict so they can both get through the day. 

“In those cases, we have gained some wisdom to trust public health professionals to look at treatment and to use the criminal justice system to nudge people in that direction. We don’t come down on them with a hammer now. We did that once and it’s always going to be known as the war on drugs and it’s always going to be known as a spectacular failure. I’m determined to not repeat history in this case,” said Satterberg.

Opioid and heroin addiction are complex diseases. It can be a challenge to not only get people to agree to get help, but also to find an available treatment program due to increasing demand for those services. Molly Carney of Evergreen Treatment Services told the audience that there are simply not enough beds for in-patient treatment. Private treatment facilities are beyond the reach of most who need help because they are so costly.

Carney points to other public concerns. Some communities have trouble understanding the need for medication-assisted treatment clinics where addicts receive daily doses of methadone. The NIMBY effect kicks in: Not in My Back Yard. “There is a lot of stigma around the treatment just as there is stigma around the disorder we’re trying to treat” said Carney. “So education, education, education is incredibly important right now.”

Along with the panelists, audience members shared personal stories. Some talked about their own struggle with heroin addiction and others discussed the emotional impact of having a family member struggle with the disease.

But there is hope. Ten years ago, Thea Oliphant-Wells was homeless and addicted to heroin. Today, she is a social worker for the Seattle & King County Public Health Needle Exchange Program.  “Long before I stopped using heroin, I had people working in my life to try and help me get there. That’s so important — that harm-reduction piece. When you have people who treat you like you matter and that you’re worthy, it’s amazing.”

LeGate feels the tide is starting to turn in battling the opiate and heroin epidemic. She pointed to the work of the local task force, efforts on the national level and the fact that so many people turned out for the MOHAI conversation on a warm Seattle evening.

Still, she challenged the public to educate themselves. “We’re talking about a public health crisis.” As her own story shows, opiate and heroin addiction knows no boundaries.

“There’s nothing worse in your life than losing a child and trying everything you can to keep them alive. So stop judging, stop the fear and remember that people who have a substance abuse disorder are not throwaway people.”

You can watch a live recording of the panel discussion online now.

Featured Image Credit: Kathleen Knies


Enrique Cerna

The son of Mexican immigrants, Enrique Cerna was born and raised in the Yakima Valley.  Enrique joined KCTS 9 in January, 1995. He has anchored current affairs programs, moderated statewide political debates, produced and reported stories for national PBS programs in addition to local documentaries on social and juvenile justice, the environment and Latinos in Washington State.

Enrique has earned nine Northwest Emmy Awards and numerous other honors. In June, 2013, he was inducted into the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Northwest Chapter’s Silver Circle for his work as a television professional.

More stories by Enrique Cerna