Two years ago, right around this time, I got a phone call from a friend. I was with the girl I was dating at the time, watching a movie I can't remember. I silenced his call, forgot to call him back, and the next morning he was gone. Dead of a heroin overdose.
Since 2007, when I was a sophomore in high school, I've had six classmates die of heroin related deaths. Some, but not all of them were heroin overdoses. Some had killed themselves accidentally when using other drugs as a substitute. Some killed themselves on purpose.
My oldest brother, who graduated high school five years before me, said that he knows of at least a half dozen classmates and friends who have died of heroin overdoses in the past 10 years.
So now, I implore you, it's time to have "the talk."
No, not the birds and the bees. Not the alcohol talk, or the boyfriend talk, or the borrowing the car talk, and not even the "we're going to break up" talk. No. It is time to have the heroin talk.
And I know what you're thinking: get some new friends.
I'd have to retort by explaining this: movies and television will try to convince you heroin is exclusively a junkie-under-the-bridge drug, but it isn't. It's in middle class America, lower class America, and -- as we've been ignoring for years -- Hollywood and the upper class, too. Not a single one of the people I've seen affected by heroin are the types portrayed in the movies or on television. They are all intelligent, hard working students. They were musicians and athletes and presidents of clubs. Some of them were so smart that they thought they could beat an opiate addiction on their own, knowing that they hadn't encountered anything in life they didn't overcome. They, just like any addict of any race, class or creed in our country, deserve our love and support. They deserve attention and help, not a jail sentence or a quiet death in a room by themselves.
Conquering heroin on your own is an unrealistic if not impossible endeavor. Overdosing is now the leading cause of accidental deaths in the United States for people aged 25 to 64. Keep in mind that not a single person I've referenced thus far lived to see their 25th birthday. As high profile addicts like Russell Brand have made abundantly clear: "The mentality and behavior of drug addicts and alcoholics is wholly irrational until you understand that they are completely powerless over their addiction and unless they have structured help they have no hope."
Aside from my six classmates who have passed away, I know of another four from my elementary school who are currently in rehabilitation programs for heroin addiction. Three of those four are college graduates. And they're just the ones I know about, the ones I've kept in touch with.
But why? How could a drug so deadly be so popular?
Well, for one, nobody is talking about it. Philip Seymour Hoffman's death has begun to pull the veil back, but we can only change the tide if we rip it off. When interviewed by Philly Burbs about the Bucks County heroin epidemic, officials from my former high school -- the same one where my brother and I know of a combined 12 deaths in the last ten years -- said "they haven't had issues with heroin in years."
Today, in Pennsylvania and 35 other states, if someone calls emergency services for a heroin overdose they won't be protected by good samaritan laws. Other states have rightly adopted new laws to prevent people from avoiding a phone call that could save a life for fear of being arrested. Yet, most states have somehow stayed behind the ball, and every year you can bet people are dying because of it.
Then there is naloxone. The drug, also known as Narcan, is an antidote to heroin. It's an antidote that -- if used in the first 30 minutes of an overdose, before breathing stops -- can prevent death, brain damage and even revive the victim in a few short minutes. So why doesn't every user or family member of an addict have Narcan? Because it isn't available over the counter. In fact, you need a prescription for it and it can only be injected. The drug is in trials as a nasal spray and the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) is considering making it available over the counter. But for now, for most users and most places effected by heroin, these solutions are inconvenient or simply not available.
Globally, the discussion about addiction and hard drug use is due for a change. We can't talk about addicts as criminals any longer, and we probably shouldn't prosecute them that way either. If the rising numbers of drug use aren't enough to convince you our system is broken, you can take it from me.
Two years ago, right around this time, I missed a phone call that will change my life forever. I'd tell you the loss was inconceivable, but I'd been too jaded from seeing it before. Here is the hard truth: Heroin has arrived. It is here amongst us; it is in our schools, in our locker rooms, in Hollywood, in the cities, and in the suburbs. If it were a virus, I'd be willing to bet someone you know has been infected. Knowing that, I think it is time we had the talk.