CEDAR RAPIDS — Rod Courtney, who has been a probation officer for 19 years, never thought he would be personally touched by the opioid crisis.
But he was wrong.
“It affects so many different people from all walks of life,” Courtney said. “Nobody is safe.”
Courtney lost his 38-year-old son Chad to a fatal heroin and fentanyl overdose on Nov. 1, 2016. His son had a substance abuse problem but was doing well in treatment until he injured his shoulder while working. A doctor gave him prescription pain pills and when he ran out of those he “got caught up in heroin addiction.”
“We warned him but he said he was only given so many (prescription) pills,” Courtney said. “He wasn’t coming around us and we knew something was wrong.”
Courtney said the death of his son is why he and his wife got involved in Community Resources United to Stop Heroin in Iowa — or CRUSH — which started last year. It’s a community based organization dedicated to stopping the opioid and heroin crisis. The program provides education and resources to families and those in recovery, sponsors events for outreach and works with lawmakers on opioid-related bills.
Courtney said CRUSH also provides support for parents and friends who have lost loved ones, those who live with addicts and anyone struggling with addiction.
“It’s a place to have open, frank conversations about the issue,” Courtney said. “You feel like you have no place to go or that anyone will understand, so CRUSH provides that place to find support.”
Chapters of CRUSH started last year in Dubuque and Clinton counties and four others started this year in Linn, Blackhawk, Scott and Johnson counties, said Al Fear, a Cedar Rapids police officer. Community Resources United to Stop Heroin in Iowa is an extension of the Eastern Iowa Heroin Initiative, a program Fear leads that works to raise awareness of the heroin crisis.
The attendance at the CRUSH meetings, which are once or twice a month in the six counties, has increased slowly over time but a few more people come each month, Fear said.
“The Linn chapter had 15 (last) Wednesday and it was a great mix of people with (Area Substance Abuse Council) counselors, addicts, parents who lost loved ones and parents with children in recovery,” Fear said. “There’s such a stigma with addiction, so they are grateful to find others. Most users have pushed away family and friends. Most are alone, so connecting with others helps in their recovery, and the meetings usually end with hugs.”
Linn County CRUSH meets from 6 to 7:30 p.m. on the first and third Wednesday of each month at Mission of Hope, 1700 B Ave. NE in Cedar Rapids.
Johnson County CRUSH meets from 6 to 7:30 p.m. on the third Monday of each month at Prelude Behavioral Services, 430 Southgate Ave. in Iowa City.
Fear said heroin addiction is a lifelong struggle for users who are at risk every day. About 85 percent of users nationwide started out abusing prescription drugs and then went to heroin because it’s a cheaper alternative.
There’s a 95 percent relapse rate for heroin users, Fear said. Once addicted, it’s no longer about the “high,” it’s about not being sick, which is how addicts feel when they try to stop. They have to snort or inject more heroin to feel the high or prevent withdrawal, which then leads to overdoses.
In 2015, authorities in Eastern Iowa began seeing heroin mixed with fentanyl, an opioid pain medication, which has led to more overdoses and deaths nationwide, according to Eastern Iowa Heroin Initiative website. Fentanyl is 100 times stronger than morphine and 30 to 50 times stronger than heroin.
Court documents show there have been several federal cases within the last two to three years involving defendants who have been convicted of distributing heroin mixed with fentanyl that caused overdoses where the user lost consciousness and needed medical help to be revived or death.
Fear pointed out the overdoses in Linn County have increased over the last two years. In 2015, there were 20 overdose deaths and 330 admitted to hospitals. In 2016, there were 27 deaths and 874 admitted to hospitals.
“We are on track to double those numbers in 2017,” Fear said. “The Presidential Commission on Opioids says 142 people died each day from overdoses, which is a death toll equal to 9/11 every three weeks.”
Help and support
Fear said there are two new programs being implemented as part of the heroin initiative. “Don’t Run Call 911” encourages someone who finds a person who has overdosed to call police without fear of being arrested. “Safe Passage” allows users to bring their drug paraphernalia to police and be taken to a treatment facility without fear of being prosecuted.
Courtney also pointed out that International Overdose Awareness Day — a day of remembrance and awareness — is Aug. 31. He and his wife, along with some others from CRUSH, plan to attend the “FED UP!” event in Washington, D.C., this year. There will be a news conference and candlelight vigil for those lost and a march to the White House.
“It’s been kind of tough getting ready for the event,” he said. “ ... It’s brought up (Chad’s) death again but it’s a fight every day, and we want to offer some hope and support to others.”
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If You Go
What: Linn County CRUSH
When: 6 to 7:30 p.m. on the first and third Wednesday of each month.
Where: Mission of Hope, 1700 B Ave. NE, Cedar Rapids.
What: Johnson County CRUSH
When: 6 to 7:30 p.m. on the third Monday of each month.
Where: Prelude Behavioral Services, 430 Southgate Ave., Iowa City.