Diamonds And Demons: Beyond Addiction

Saturday, September 30, 2017
Health Care

"Drug Manufacturers Targeted This Area"

Drug overdoses – many of them linked to opioids such as painkillers, heroin and fentanyl – are the leading cause of accidental death in the United States. In 2016, more Tennesseans died from an overdose than ever before in recorded state history, according to the Tennessee Department of Health

The opioid epidemic, "has led to the largest percentage of our criminal conduct. It's filled up our jails. Put a price tag on that - I don't know how you do it," says District Attorney General Russell Johnson.

These grim statistics take shape outside Knoxville in the rolling hills and mountains of East Tennessee. 

In this latest installment of TruckBeat, we return to East Tennessee's Roane County, where recovery court graduation celebrations are overshadowed by the escalating addiction crisis, and a looming court battle against Big Pharma.

Nothing Today Is The Same 

After more than a year in Roane County's strict recovery court program, Ernie Bright is finally graduating. For the first time in nearly a decade he's got a job, a driver's license and a relationship with his children. He reflects on his journey to recovery, and says it's been tough. "My mom never gave up on me and if it hadn't been for her, god knows where I'd be at right now, because I don't," Bright says.

"One day, it'll sneak up on you and it'll grab you back." 

Today, Bright is focused on keeping a step ahead of the opioid addiction and old criminal habits that landed him in East Tennessee jails again and again. He says helping other struggling addicts get, and stay, clean has given his life a new feeling of purpose. He's even organized a Saturday morning Narcotics Anonymous meeting in his small mountain town.


Our Patients Are Poor

Court officials say witnessing hardcore addicts such as Bright turn their lives around in recovery court highlights the need for more alternative sentencing options. Roane County Judge Dennis Humphrey says they've found, "more jail, more jail, more jail," is not effective in helping serious addicts who commit nonviolent crimes. "It does not remedy the problem."

Now, Roane County officials want to expand the recovery court's addiction services into nearby rural counties. Their so-called Healthier Tennessee effort aims to get beyond simply treating addiction, with programs that also address some of the side effects of chronic poverty, and the medical, mental health and dental needs of Appalachian communities. 

"If we can teach them the value of nutrition and exercise, then we could hopefully get them to the point where they're not dependent on medication," says Free Medical Clinic Executive Director Jackie Clay Dubose. 

The Lost Generation

Roane County is also fighting back against Big Pharma. The county has joined a handful of other East Tennessee counties in a lawsuit against major opioid manufacturers, including OxyContin-maker Purdue Pharma. County prosecutors allege the pharmaceutical companies caused the deadly nationwide epidemic by intentionally downplaying the risk of prescription painkiller medications, addicting a generation. 

"It started this whole concept of pain clinics, pill mills, essentially addicted a whole demographic of people through the last as much as 20 years or more," says DA Johnson.

Purdue Pharma vigorously denies the allegations in the East Tennessee lawsuit.

Johnson says the opioid lawsuits springing up in Tennessee and in other states across the country could ultimately follow the example set by the landmark $246 billion tobacco settlement of the 1990's, which aimed to help states recoup expenses spent on smoking-related health problems.

Jess Mador

Jess Mador is the creator of TruckBeat for WUOT. She's an award-winning public radio and multimedia journalist who has produced stories for news organizations around the country, including Minnesota Public Radio, NPR News and PBS member stations. She has a Master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Phil Batta

Phil Batta is an award-winning cinematographer and director who specializes in creating short-form documentaries and visually rich multiplatform media for social impact. His work appears on PBS, The New Yorker, UK Channel 4, ITN, The Guardian, ABC7, CNN and ITVS. He's also shot and edited projects honored as official selections at international film festivals and exhibitions. Batta is currently directing two documentaries exploring youth social justice and gender equality. 

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