How churches can minister amidst rising culture of drug abuse

Published Feb 23, 2017

FRESNO — Heroin use is skyrocketing in Northern and Southern California, increasing a whopping 63 percent since 2002. In that time, heroin-related overdose deaths have nearly quadrupled.

“Heroin … has hit all the rich neighborhoods and all the poor neighborhoods,” stated Jon Daily of Recovery Happens Counseling Services, speaking about Sacramento.

Heroin is used by the wealthiest and the poorest in the state — males and females; whites, blacks, Hispanics — and basically every ethnic group.

Every 45 minutes, a person in California overdoses on drugs, a 50 percent increase since 2006. Hospitals in rural Northern California have more overdoses than other parts of the state. Placer, Sacramento and Shasta Counties all rank higher for heroin and opioid abuse than the national average.

The alarming California heroin epidemic

So close to the Mexican border, and with its vast networks of airports, airstrips and Interstate systems, California proves a prime place to conduct business for international (and domestic) drug smugglers. Recently, a potent and deadly type of heroin, called “black tar,” has come into California from Xalisco, Mexico.

“We are in the midst of an epidemic,” stated Cary Quashen, director of Action Family Counseling Drug and Alcohol Treatment Centers in Southern California. “I’ve been screaming the last five years, ‘This heroin is exploding.’”

Made from morphine, and found in the seed pods of various poppy plants, heroin is an addictive opiate. Dealers often mix and pollute pure heroin with sugar, starch, quinine, strychnine, cocaine, methamphetamine and other poisons. Recently, the highly dangerous painkiller opioid, Fentanyl and Carfentanil, have been added. Fentanyl is 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times stronger than heroin.

When Carfentanil is added to heroin, the mixture can be deadly, causing significant slow breathing, unconsciousness and death. Carfentanil is the most potent opioid, used commercially for tranquilizing large animals. It is 10,000 times stronger than morphine. Only 2 milligrams can knock out a 2,000-pound elephant. Some users are unaware that Fentanyl, Carfentanil or other narcotics/substances have been added to the heroin they purchase. Since there are no regulations for the drug, users have no way to know exact dosages or purity levels.

Heroin abuse and California’s young adults

Heroin use among children and teens has risen sharply in recent years, especially in Northern California. In some schools heroin abuse is so severe, children as young as 6th grade are taught how to use Narcan (Naloxone), an expensive drug that, if administered in time, can reverse an overdose.

Heroin injection can also expose children and teens to life-threatening diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis C. When pregnant teens use heroin, their babies are born drug-addicted, and must suffer through drug withdrawal after birth.

California lawmakers, trying to reduce heroin-induced overdoses, incurable conditions and sexually transmitted diseases, are considering establishing safe injection facilities throughout the state. Some officials, however, oppose a safe haven for heroin users financed by taxpayers. Law enforcement opposes the idea, saying it will greatly worsen drug addiction in California.

“This sends entirely the wrong message regarding drug use,” stated Asha Harris, spokeswoman for the California State Sheriffs’ Association.

Prescription opioid painkillers

Californians, as well as other US residents, also are abusing prescription opioid painkillers in escalating numbers.

In the United States today “50 Americans die a day from prescription drug overdoses, and more than 6 million suffer from prescription drug abuse disorders,” said Andrea Gielen, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy.

“This is a very real epidemic, and warrants a strong public health response.”

Prescription opioids help relieve physical pain, but they also affect the brain’s reward/pleasure system, creating a euphoric feeling. When a person continues to take painkillers after his injury or surgical pain has subsided, hoping to continue to experience the “high” that comes with its use, the drug can be fatal.

Some estimate 75 percent of heroin users first became hooked on prescription opiates. When prescription painkillers become too difficult to get in California and too expensive to buy, most users turn to heroin, which is cheap and easy to find. The average cost of 0.1 gram (a single dose) on the street is $15 or less.

How California pastors and churches can help

California pastors and congregations can be instrumental in helping to address, educate about and prevent heroin use. Here are some suggestions:

  • Learn everything you can about heroin and prescription opioid drug abuse. Hold classes and seminars in the church and community to teach youth and adults the dangers of drug abuse. Provide literature to the congregation with helpful resources and emergency phone numbers.
  • Educate congregation members to understand the side effects of drug abuse and to recognize physical and behavioral symptoms of users (see right column).
  • Observe Southern Baptist Convention Sunday emphases, such as Substance Abuse Prevention Sunday on March 19. Plan a special service, and preach about substance abuse prevention from the pulpit. Make the congregation aware of the growing problem.
  • Research, check out and make a list of qualified health care providers and drug/alcohol treatment centers in your area. Keep the information available and updated in order to make contact in an emergency and/or make referrals (see blue box).
  • Educate and train church leadership to respond to an emergency overdose situation.
  • Partner with other churches, community leaders, drug treatment centers, counselors and others to address and help prevent substance abuses.

Encourage parents to get involved

  • Teach parents and caretakers of children and youth how to safely dispose of unused prescription medications, flushing them down the toilet or working with local pharmacists who sponsor drug take-back disposal programs.
  • Alert parents to look for visible clues of a child’s drug abuse, including syringes, tiny balloons or plastic bags, capsules and packaging material for antihistamines.
  • Encourage parents to get to know their children’s friends. Most adolescents who misuse prescription pain relievers get them at no cost from a friend or relative.
  • Encourage parents to talk with their teens about the dangers of drug use — they identify their parents as the Number 1 influence in their lives. Parents are tremendous influencers on their children, according to the Coalition for Placer Youth, a group of parents, educators, community leaders and volunteers that come together to help prevent and reduce substance abuse among youth in Placer County. Those children and youth who learn about dangerous drug risks from their parents are 50 percent less likely to use substances.

In these ways and many others, pastors, church leaders, parents and congregations can seek to address and respond to California’s growing substance abuse crisis.

(George, author of 30 books, lives in Alabama with her husband Timothy.)