Photo by Frank Couch.
Dalton Smith poses while sharing his experience with drugs, including heroin, and how he was able to break his addiction to what he calls the ‘devil drug.’
Dalton Smith has an addictive personality. He started drinking in his early teens. As a student at Spain Park, he smoked and sold marijuana, eventually progressing to psychedelic drugs. He was addicted to heroin before he graduated from high school.
“A lot of kids, they get drunk, they feel miserable, they don’t want to do it ever again — they’re done,” said Smith, who is now 21 years old. “But I remember thinking, when can I do it again?”
That desire for getting high and feeling high didn’t stem from a major tragedy, Smith said. His parents got divorced when he was 10 years old, but he said he wouldn’t consider that a tragic turning point in his life.
“I grew up in a great family,” Smith said. “I had anything that I wanted. I had nothing wrong with my childhood. I didn’t have a traumatic childhood like a lot of people like myself. I didn’t really have that.”
While some kids could drink alcohol or smoke marijuana once and never go back, Smith said he couldn’t do that. He would want to be drunk or high again as soon as he could.
“A lot of kids won’t even think about it,” he said. “They’re like, ‘That’s not for me.’ But for me, I’m all or nothing. I didn’t care; it sounded fun to me.”
At first, addiction did not have a large impact on his life. He still played sports and did well in school. He was still the guy other parents wanted their kids to hang out with, Smith said, until he got into a crowd that only cared about one thing — getting high.
Then he started selling drugs and trading for pills. He first snorted heroin when he was 16 or 17.
“I remember the first time just really loving it,” he said. “It gave me this euphoria that I had never felt in my entire life, and that’s why, in my opinion, heroin is the devil drug. That’s why I think it’s such an epidemic, is because it’s such a powerful drug.”
In Shelby County, there were 32 overdose deaths in 2014 and 13 deaths between January and May this year. Of those deaths, 11 were believed to be heroin-related. Shelby County Drug Task Force Commander Lt. Clay Hammac there is a rough estimate that 25 percent of overdoses in the county can be attributed to heroin.
“Shelby County, we categorize it as a consumer county,” Hammac said. “This is not a county where drug dealers are prevalent, but this is a county where drug use and abuse are on the rise.”
In 2014, 27 heroin overdoses were reported in the city of Hoover. Ten of those overdoses resulted in death. As of October 2015, Hoover already had 27 overdoses.
“In my 30-plus years as a policeman, I’ve never seen a drug hit like heroin has,” Hoover Police Chief Nick Derzis said. “We’ve been keeping stats for probably five years, and our overdose deaths continue to rise.”
Hoover PD’s first encounter with heroin was in 2003, said Hoover PD Captain Gregg Rector, and the city’s first heroin overdose death was in October 2008.
“We’ve gone from seven years ago, we really weren’t seeing it at all. It was really just sporadic what we were seeing,” Rector said. “Fast-forward three years to 2011 and 2012, and we had five deaths each of those two years.”
The heroin epidemic comes from a combination of the drug’s addictiveness and its relatively low cost, Rector said. A $15 or $20 bag of heroin could be enough to get two people high. Those bags, however, are unpredictable. Rector said users cannot know what their heroin is cut with or how potent the drug is.
Hammac said the heroin problem in Shelby County derives from addiction to prescription medications. While these situations often start with a legitimate cause for the prescription drug - often an opiate-based medication - some patients become dependent. When the prescription becomes harder to obtain or more expensive to purchase, they may transition to heroin.
Sometimes heroin is cut to make it less potent, but the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has confirmed instances of fentanyl-cut heroin, Rector said. Fentanyl, a prescription opiate used to treat severe chronic pain, is also a highly addictive substance and increases the high of heroin.
“It doesn’t say 80 milligrams on a sack of heroin,” Smith said. “You don’t know what the hell you’re getting.”
Smith said he overdosed twice while he was using. The first time he injected heroin, rather than snorting it, it almost killed him.
“I remember the first time I got shot up, it was by a guy who had just done a 13-year sentence,” Smith said, “and he looked me in the eyes and he said, ‘You’ll never stop, and you’ll never go back.”
While prescription drug addiction affects multiple age groups in Shelby County, Hammac said most of the time, young adults are the ones transitioning from prescription drug use to heroin. Sometimes this comes from a more open attitude toward drug use, he said.
“Older adults know the stigma that surrounds heroin from decades ago,” Hammac said, “and that stigma probably does not exist with younger adults.”
Hammac said prevention is a goal for the Sheriff’s Office, which seeks to inform students, families and educators about the danger of drug use and addiction to prevent overdose deaths.
When someone transitions to injecting heroin, they will overdose within the first minute after using. Some police and fire departments have access to Narcan or Naloxone, a medication that reverses the effect of heroin. Responders can administer it on scene and potentially prevent an overdose death, but Rector said a lack of options following that step prevents some people from getting treatment.
“I wish there were more places that were readily available,” Rector said. “I wish there were a place that I knew today that if I had someone who walked into my office and said, ‘Hey, I’m a heroin addict, I need help, I need to go to rehab and I need to go today.’ I don’t know that there’s any place that I could call up for a person who didn’t have insurance.”
Even with help from his parents, Smith tried to quit using several times and would manage to stay clean for a few months, but he kept going back to drugs. He dropped out of Spain Park and was placed into an alternative school, and he spent his last week in high school in treatment and didn’t know if he would graduate.
“It was just this vicious, dark cycle,” he said. “I could not find my way out.”
Smith just celebrated being clean for two and a half years. He said he still doesn’t smoke or drink because he doesn’t want to potentially open the floodgates.
“I might be able to, I might get away with it,” he said, “but eventually it’s not going to fit my cup of tea, and I’m going to want to go back to heroin.”
Smith now has a job and is back in school working on a degree. He also speaks to student groups and sponsors individuals recovering from addiction. His goal, he said, is that they know they can beat their addiction.
“There is a way out. That’s what I try to do,” he said. “If I’m talking to kids who have never gotten high before or kids that have full, active addiction, I always want it to be known that there is a way out.”
Treatment was an important part of his recovery process, Smith said. While different strategies work for different people, he said it seems impossible to stop using heroin without treatment. He also advocates treatment, he said, because of the life skills he learned while going through it. Before those 10 months in an intensive in-patient treatment center in Atlanta, he said he didn’t have coping skills or the ability to make a life for himself.
“It completely turned my life around,” he said. “I learned how to live again. I learned how to see the beauty in life again. I learned how to be a responsible adult.”
Smith said he believes it’s almost impossible to stop every teenager from ever trying drugs, and he knows he might not be able to reach people until they are at their breaking point. But being able to help at least one person, he said, is what keeps him going.
“Sponsoring guys, they think I’m helping them and I’m saving their life and all that, but they’re helping me save my life,” he said. “People did it for me, and I’m going to do it for other people.”
Coming Clean is part of a three-part series for the Hoover Sun. The next installment, focused on
community efforts toward addiction prevention, will be in the January edition of the Hoover Sun.