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He lost almost everything to addiction. Then an Arrest Changed His Life – NPR News




Will wipes off a sweat on a hot day as he walks down Willow Street in Lynn, Massachusetts, trying to hand out safety supplies to drug users on the street.
Image Credit: Jesse Costa


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Heroin began in the early 2000s, when he turned 40, with rewiring and control of Will’s brain.

“When you were on drugs back then, people didn’t want anything to do with you,” Will recalls. “People have given up on me.”

Will lost almost everything: jobs, his driver’s license, his car, his marriage, and his house. He found enough temporary work to pay the rent of a room, ate in soup kitchens, and stole and sold goods for cash.


“Feeding that addiction,” he says. “Feed that monster.”

We only use Will’s first name because prospective landlords or employers may not hire him based on his track record.

The game changer

One morning, nearly three years ago, with no heroin and no money to buy anything, Will had to retire. This former basketball player, once on top form, dragged himself down the street in search of a deal. He had a crack he could sell. The buyer was an undercover agent.

“That was the game changer,” Will says.

Instead of jail, Will was sent to a daily probation program in Massachusetts called Community corrections. It is a sign of what has changed in the 50 years since President Richard Nixon declared the War on Drugs. It eventually targeted people with black or brown skin, like Will.

“In the early 1970s, when this so-called War on Drugs started, it functioned much more like a war against the people who were addicted to drugs,” says Dr. Stephen Taylor, an addiction psychiatrist in Birmingham, Ala.


The Massachusetts program was launched 25 years ago as a cure for prison overcrowding. But attitudes towards drug users also began to change.


“There was a pivot toward this idea of ​​substance use disorder as a disease rather than just some sort of lack of willpower,” said Vin Lorenti, director of community corrections for the Massachusetts Probation Service.

From Monday to Friday, 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, Will was required to participate in counseling and other aspects of addiction treatment. He had classes on anger management, problem solving, and job training.

Massachusetts has 18 such centers. Today, three quarters of people sent to community corrections in Massachusetts have a history of drug use. Because they live at home, the cost is a fraction of the incarceration. And only about half of the people in this program reoffend, compared to those who get out of prison.

Gaps and differences

Marc Levin of the Council on Criminal Justice says most states have an alternative path for drug users charged with minor offenses. There are police departments who offer immediate placement in addiction treatment, drug courts and other community based options like the one that Will came in. But while some drug users are offered treatment instead of punishment for petty crimes, Levin says, others are still sent to prison.

“With these alternatives, we really have to step on the accelerator,” says Levin, who directs the policy of the municipality. “They’re on the books all over the country, but if you really look at usage, especially in rural areas, you really see gaps and inequalities there.”


Lorenti says the War on Drugs still casts a shadow over programs that refer drug offenders to treatment.

“Some people might think, ‘oh, well, that’s being soft on crime,’” Lorenti says. “But if you know someone who struggles with substance use disorder, you know that pursuing your recovery is not something easy or soft.”

Will came from community corrections trained for a job that aims to help drug users through that struggle. He is a recovery coach. Will walks the streets where he used to buy drugs, hand out Narcan and flyers about safe drug use, help people go through a detox program, take clients to AA meetings, and connect them with lawyers or medical care if necessary.

“It’s a daily struggle and challenge,” Will says, “but it’s satisfying.”

Treated and checked

Will works out of an office in the Lynn Community Health Center north of Boston. It is littered with donated clothes, shoes, diapers, backpacks and toiletries. There are drawers of condoms – and syringes. Dispensing clean medicines is still illegal in some communities but is encouraged by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

dr. Kiame Mahaniah, the health center’s CEO, hired and paid for its first recovery coaches with grants just a few years ago.


“It’s very recently that people with experience are valued as the most important member of the team because of that experience,” he says. “Now it’s just unimaginable to think we could do the job without recovery coaches.”

And drugs are changing treatment for people like Will who are addicted to opioids.

“Addiction can be treated and controlled,” says Taylor, who serves on the board of directors of the American Society of Addiction Medicine. “The outcomes when we provide people treatment for addiction are about the same as the outcomes for people treated for other chronic medical conditions.”

Many studies prove that drugs prescribed to treat opioid addiction prevent overdose and save lives. Mahaniah attributes these drugs to alleviating the symptoms of addiction so that patients can focus on rebuilding their lives.

“Compared to 40 years ago, the difference in the landscape is astonishing,” he says.

“Everything is possible”

Will takes methadone, the oldest of the three approved drugs. He has to go to a designated methadone clinic to get his dose. Will says he still feels rejected by some of the people who see him there or know that he has used heroin for years.


“A lot of people are very judgmental,” he says. ‘They like to say, ‘That person is nothing.’ If you don’t give someone a chance, how are they going to make it in life?”

Will, now 56, says he’s grateful for the people who took a chance on him — and for his church, which he calls the foundation of his two-year recovery. He is tapering off the methadone and plans to recover without it by the end of the summer. He bought a car. And he’s signed up for classes this fall, more addiction recovery training so he can help others return to healthy, productive lives.

“I’m happy with where I am now,” he says. “I just pray to God that I can keep doing this for a while. Everything is possible.”

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