Advocates for painkiller addicts want society to meet them halfway


AUSTIN (KXAN) — Mark Willmore was just a teenager when a doctor prescribed him pain medications after dental surgery and back pain.

“He was like ‘just take these and you’ll be better,’ so I did,” Willmore said. “Not only did it take away the pain, it gave me energy, it was euphoric and I liked it.”

Willmore got addicted. When his prescription ran out, he turned to buying pills on the street. Then, at 26, he tried heroin for the first time. He said it opened his eyes to an entirely different world.

“It’s an intense rush, you get a lot more effect produced for what you’re looking for and it wasn’t near as expensive,” Willmore said. Then, a reality check. He got high, left the house, and crashed his car.

He said the first thought that crossed his mind was if he would be able to get high in prison. The judge sent him to treatment instead of a 20-year prison sentence. When he left rehab, he “was high again for another almost six years” battling heroin. Suicidal, he knew something had to chance. Seven stints in different treatment programs across the country were not the solution for him.

Pharmacist Lucas Hill, director of Operation Naloxone, works with several organizations in Central Texas to provide overdose remedies and education.

“The number of opioid overdose deaths is going to continue to go up for at least several more years,” Hill, clinical assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin College of Pharmacy, said. Through its partnerships, Operation Naloxone has distributed more than $1 million of powerful overdose antidotes.

“We see a harm reduction approach as a compassionate person-centered approach that gives people respect as individuals, saying that they deserve not to die,” Hill explained. “And, we encourage connection to long-term treatment to treatment for hepatitis C, HIV, active medications to treat their opioid use disorders but even people who aren’t willing to engage in that treatment now deserve the respect and the resources to be able to survive until that treatment becomes something that fits into their life.”

Hill also address what he dubbed the “most pressing need right now,” the secondary effects of injection drug use. Needle exchanges are illegal in Texas, he said.

“We need to change that,” Hill continued. “We need to push through legislation that makes it legal to provide people with sterile syringes for injections so that they don’t contract painful, debilitating, life-long infectious diseases, and ultimately, even if you have a viewpoint that there’s an aspect of personal responsibility here and people deserve that, think with your wallet. Think about the tax dollars that are going to these incredibly expensive treatments long-term.”

Hill reaffirmed his commitment to help people who need it most, who often will not reach out on their own, even if they make questionable choices.

“Any of us who’ve had a family member affected by addiction can understand the gravity of this situation,” Hill explained. “We have to keep in mind it’s generally not a conscious choice, it’s an unconscious process — their brain is suffering from a disease and we need to try to help them stay alive until we can address the root cause.”

The framework of a new budget deal in Washington includes funding to combat the country’s opioid crisis, Republicans and Democrats announced Wednesday. Senators are preparing to vote on the legislation this week, then it will be sent to the House.

“The president is committed to this,” Rep. Jodey Arrington, R-Lubbock, said, adding that there are numerous pieces to the puzzle, and each region ought to address specific concerns. Arrington said the federal government has invested $1 billion across the country, with around $23 million granted to Texas law enforcement, faith-based groups, and civic leaders.

Congressman Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, said, “It’s a tremendous problem across our country. One hundred and fifteen Americans dying every day as a result of this crisis. Only about 20 percent of our population that needs treatment getting that treatment.”

Doggett said, “a few speeches, a tweet here and there” from President Donald Trump and “throwing a few more people in jail” will not solve this problem.

“So few people are getting care right now that $3 billion a year won’t go very far, but it’s better than the nothing we’re getting from President Trump,” Doggett added.

Willmore, now 32, has been sober for more than a year. He helps run a sober living community and lives with his dog, Rico, who was rescued after Hurricane Harvey.

“Looking back now, it’s like ‘wow,’ I got out,” Willmore said with a look of bewilderment. “Yeah, it’s a miracle.”

His advice to anyone in a dark place who does not know where to turn is not to give up.

“Reach out for help, that’s Step 1, Reach out for help,” he said. “Put in some action to get some results.”

He said he thinks he has only scratched the surface on his long road of reconstruction that lies ahead.

“I believe there are more good things coming,” Willmore said.

If you or someone you know needs help with drug addiction, some resources are compiled here.

To hear more from Rep. Doggett and Rep. Arrington about the country’s opioid crisis and the government’s response, watch the video below.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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