PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island – The state that made headlines just a year ago for 22 overdose deaths in less than 2 weeks, is still waging war on a killer taking over most of the U.S.: heroin. The powerful drug fentanyl was found present in tests conducted on 13 of those who died, and continues to lace batches of heroin sold in the state and all across the U.S. The Drug Enforcement Agency, issuing a warning just last week about its dangers, says fentanyl is used for its euphoric effects. It was first introduced in the 1960s as a powerful anesthetic. It’s chemistry is 100 times more potent than morphine as an analgesic. It’s presence in heroin is something Alan Bianchini, Director of Housing for Rhode Island’s Council on Alcoholism and Other Drug Dependence, hears about far too often.
Bianchini’s division of the organization finds housing for people as soon as they leave rehabilitation. It is a requirement that they have been sober for 30 days before they enter this program, which usually lasts 2 years.
“We talk to them when they get here and help them lay out their goals, and set a plan for them,” says Bianchini. “We help them lay out a road map for what they want to accomplish.”
The program is a division of Phoenix House, a nonprofit drug and alcohol rehabilitation organization with over 130 programs in 9 states serving 18,000 each year. They test those in the program for drugs weekly. Bianchini says the state has seen a spike in fatal heroin overdoses.
“There’s been a rash of deadly overdoses since last year,” says Bianchini. “Heroin is a huge problem.”
Bianchini says now the people that come into their program cross every boundary.
“It’s across the board,” says Bianchini. “We have young people, middle aged, older people. When we get them in, we try to help them identify what their goals are. Some say school, some say finding a job. They think it’s not attainable. Once they realize it is, we try to help steer them in the right direction.”
During their time with RICADD, AA meetings are required.
“It’s about trying to get people transitioned from what they were to where they want to be,” says Bianchini.
Most recently a number of states have seen cuts in prevention and aftercare programs. With RICADD, they don’t have a lot of staff anyway, and it’s not increased or decreased.
Bianchini says relapses are part of the struggle.
“There are relapses everywhere in every program,” says Bianchini. “We screen them weekly so we can catch something early and then get them into treatment as soon as we possibly can.”
Bianchini has seen the same problems other states are seeing. For many, what started out as a prescription pain killer addiction turned to heroin due to the crackdown states have imposed on prescription pain killers like Oxycontin and Vicodin. It’s a catch 22, and very difficult to control. Bianchini says drugs like cocaine come and go, but heroin holds steady, and they’ve seen a big increase.
Rhode Island now has an addiction specialist on hand in most emergency rooms to prevent a gap between hospitals and heroin treatment. Doctors at Rhode Island Hospital who want more training in treating addiction now have access to it. The hospital has just won accreditation from the American Board of Addiction Medicine for a new fellowship. And state troopers will soon carry naloxone, an antidote to heroin overdoses.
“There is life after addiction,” says Bianchini. “You just have to want it. I have to believe everyone who has gotten their life back is grateful that they did it. People struggling with addiction don’t believe they can still have a life and reach their goals. You have to reach out for help when you need it.”
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