Incarcerated by addiction

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Addiction, in one form or another, has been a problem here in Northern New Mexico for generations, but as opioids have entered the lives of thousands of norteño families over the past two decades, addiction has spread across the region like it never has before.

Over the past six years alone, 57 Taos County residents have died from drug overdoses due to opioids, the highly addictive set of chemical compounds active in many prescription painkillers and heroin. The overdose death rate in Taos County soars above the state average each year, which, itself, ranked as the second highest in the United States in 2014.

While New Mexico's national ranking has fallen over the past two years, the number of residents dying from drug overdoses continues to rise, according to the New Mexico Department of Health, with 497 deaths in 2016 - 343 due to opioids.

We are not alone.

The number of Americans dying of drug overdoses has nearly quadrupled since the mid-1990s. Around 64,000 deaths were recorded last year, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly two-thirds of all these deaths were due to opioids.

The CDC calls it an epidemic, and addiction, a disease. Its growing death toll has exceeded the number of Americans who died in the Vietnam and Iraq wars combined, and in 2008, surpassed car crashes as the leading cause of accidental death in the United States for the first time on record.

And yet opioid addiction remains a problem that can be easily kept at arm's length. It is in part, perhaps, because the statistics do not speak as well as the victims, as they often don't, but the clues as to what they might say lie everywhere, if only we would look.

Giving first shape to the opioid addict's story are the artifacts they leave behind. Scattered along New Mexico's highways, in public bathrooms and parks, in our offices and places of worship, in our homes and in our schools, the evidence of the epidemic collects.

We can begin to scratch at the question: What makes opioid addiction so different from all others?

In Taos, the people who hold the answer can be seen every day, wandering our streets like ghosts. They might be able to explain what it's like to be addicted to a substance that feels unbeatable, about the countless friends they've lost to overdoses and how they just can't seem to stop using.

Part of it is beyond their control. By their nature, opioids are designed to create addicts. The morphine molecule found in many prescription painkillers and heroin is almost perfectly suited for the human brain. It clings to the pathways therein and to the nerves in the spine - embeds itself there - painfully difficult for the addict to expel and leave behind.

But an addict could likely never explain how it's like nothing else - the heat of a shot of heroin entering a vein or the slow release of morphine in the bloodstream as a painkiller sheds its thin layers into the walls of the stomach - how it becomes everything, replaces everything: a warm bed, a relationship, a good job, a family, a moment of triumph. And it might be most difficult of all to understand the things they do to keep it going.

Their stories are not new. Some of the oldest human records caution against the dangers of opioid addiction.

Sometime between 23 and 79 AD, Pliny the Elder, fabled Roman naturalist, wrote of the risks associated with the sticky resin he harvested from the poppy flower. "..If too large a dose be swallowed the sleep even ends in death," he wrote.

The black and blood red poppies that still blanket the warm, dry Mediterranean region where he lived and wrote also appear in Greek mythology, emblemizing peace, sleep and death. Archaeologists have found poppies carved into the tombstones of the ancients. They became a symbol of remembrance for fallen soldiers following the World War I battle of Flanders Fields in Belgium, where they grew among the trenches. They have appeared in popular culture, featured in The Wizard of Oz as a lure wielded by the Wicked Witch of the West. They have been vital to the field of medicine, as the morphine chemical extracted from their resin serves as the essential ingredient in many modern painkillers, like Oxycontin.

And they have been abused - often injected, snorted and smoked.

From coast to coast and border to border, in cities and small towns, heroin, a drug that once seemed to only affect a marginalized few, has entered the lives of millions of Americans of every economic level, occupation and background. Many of those victims now find themselves at levels of destitution they likely never thought possible - behind bars, on the streets or nowhere at all.

In the links on the left-hand column of this page, you will find the product of a 6-month study by The Taos News. Its intention is to better understand opioid addiction in our own community and to share what we've learned with you.

It is the first in a series of stories that will publish throughout the year about people struggling with opioid addiction, and the many people - law enforcement, health professionals, counselors and families - trying to help them.

Their stories are our stories, and like many other places in America, opioid addiction has become a Taos story.

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