POCATELLO — At the height of his drug use, Christopher Day would melt and inject 15 or more 30-mg oxycodone a day.
His drug habit began after breaking his jaw in high school, and to cope with the pain, he was prescribed 10-mg hydrocodone pills.
“My jaw was wired shut and I couldn’t fit the huge pills into my mouth,” Day said. “So I went to the doctor and they prescribed me liquid codeine as an alternative.
“Instead of exchanging my three-month supply of pills, they prescribed six months of codeine on top of them, essentially giving me nine months of drugs for a three to four-month recovery.”
Day added that at the time, doctors were so careless they would hand out high-potency pain medications like they were candy.
After continued personal use, his habit evolved into buying and selling prescription medications illegally from those with legitimate prescriptions.
“When I first got into it, pills would cost a dollar a milligram, $30 for a 30-mg oxy,” Day said. “Within a year, so many people were addicted and it got so bad that prices jumped up to $40 a pill because people knew they could take advantage of a junkie. At one point the price jumped to $2 per mg.”
In order to meet the high demands of his habit and lifestyle, Day said he would make an 18-hour roundtrip to Las Vegas twice a week to bring back 1,000 pills.
He would buy each pill for $2 and flip them for $30 to $60 in Pocatello. If it weren’t for his use, he could have pulled in $28,000 to $58,000 — every week.
“I did that solid for nine months,” he said. “I’d say I made at least 100 to 150 trips. The pills were just flying. I would have them sold before I even made it back to town.”
After his supplier went under and family and friends did all they could to cut Day off and keep from enabling him, eventually his habit drove him to make drastic choices.
On Nov. 13, 2011, Day entered the Maverik at 3206 Pole Line Road, wielded a knife and demanded money from the store clerk.
The felony robbery charge marked the beginning of a campaign for getting clean.
According to the Wall Street Journal, death rates from overdoses are now higher in rural areas than in big cities, reversing a historical trend.
The rural communities of Southeast Idaho are reeling with drug-related overdoses, and it’s not from prescription medications. Instead it’s from heroin and other opioids, such as fentanyl, or a synthetic designer street drug known as U-47700.
“I’ve been doing this for 38 years, and we would have one or two cases of heroin that might be coming up in some kind of drug bust, but now it seems to be pretty much the drug of choice,” said Bannock County Sheriff Lorin Nielsen.
Nielsen confirmed that one or two cases of heroin overdoses a year have escalated to one or more overdoses a day.
“For a long time, people — mostly juveniles and young adults — would trade in painkillers, most of them obviously opioids,” Nielsen said. “And now they’re finding they can get heroin a lot cheaper, and we’ve had a big switch to that.”
From 1997 to 2011 alone, there was a 900 percent increase in people requesting treatment for opioid addiction, according to an article published in the Annual Review of Public Health.
The scourge of people searching for pain medications eventually led to the implementation of pain management specialist consultations as an alternative to family physicians prescribing high-potency medications.
“Board-certified, pain-fellowship-trained specialists are able to offer highly specialized ways of managing pain, utilizing opiates only as a last resort,” said Prashanth Manjunath, a pain management specialist at Bingham Memorial Hospital. “When pain specialists use opiates, special screening methods, including pain psychologists, are utilized to identify high-risk individuals, institute ongoing monitoring to detect early signs of opiate abuse (or) addiction and treat them appropriately.”
It is all about risk stratification and risk management, and pain specialists are equipped to do it better than anyone else, Manjunath added.
Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids aren’t just more powerful than heroin, they are cheaper and easier to produce, made from chemicals instead of fields of poppies, said the Wall Street Journal.
Nationwide, 13,882 drug seizures tested positive for fentanyl in 2015, more than double the 2014 number, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
“Fentanyl analog drugs and also a drug called U-47700 are the ones that’s been really popular around here and it’s quite a bit stronger than heroin,” said Kim Quick, Bannock County Coroner. “That’s the drug that’s really been wreaking havoc on our community. I know that the drug is not pure. It’s been cut with whatever they want to cut it with, and you never know what’s in it.”
Day believes the strenuous oversight regarding prescription medications led to the heroin epidemic plaguing Pocatello and other rural Southeast Idaho communities.
“Luckily I had only tried heroin five to 10 times because prescription pills were so easy to get a hold of,” he said. “Heroin became so prevalent about the time I went to prison because pills skyrocketed from $30 to $60 a piece, and where you could get a point of heroin for $15 and it can make them better for a fourth of the cost, it makes sense.”
The concept of “getting better” relates to how demanding, both physically and mentally, opiate withdrawals can be on a person.
Opiates can cause physical dependence, which means that a person relies on the drug to prevent withdrawal symptoms.
“I robbed that gas station just to feel normal,” Day said. “I wouldn’t wish withdrawals on anybody in the world. You literally feel like you’re dying. You are in so much pain, shaking uncontrollably, you just feel like your skin’s crawling. When you wake up in the morning, it’s like you ran a marathon, got your ass kicked and chugged a fifth of vodka all at once.”
For years, the only solution for Southeast Idaho addicts to get clean was incarceration — until recently.
To provide help before and after going to jail and to make navigating the road to recovery less difficult for area residents, the Hope and Recovery Resource Center officially opened its doors in August.
The nonprofit received a $150,000 grant from the state and offers a multitude of free services to people from all backgrounds who are recovering from drug or alcohol use or who have mental health disorders.
Rather than asking people to pay for services, the center utilizes a pay-it-forward mantra, which involves participants volunteering at the center in exchange for rides, resume assistance or support groups.
Still, some addicts such as Day realize the potential for relapse is high while living in the small community of Pocatello. And they believe the best solution for them is to get as far away from the city and the people their illicit behavior led them to.
“You could have a 90 days clean in Pocatello but on one bad day you’d relapse,” Day said. “The one day that a friend passes or you lose your job and you run into the wrong person and you say, ‘Screw it, I’m going to get high.’”
Day lied to his probation officer telling her he relapsed in order to persuade her approval to move to Boise.
Manjunath said it’s unfortunately true when asked if the ease of acquiring pain medications has led to the heroin epidemic plaguing many small, rural communities such as Pocatello.
“It is very important that outpatient-based opiate therapy is not initiated until after a thorough evaluation by a board-certified pain specialist,” he said.
However, there is hope, some figurative light at the end of the tunnel, for those battling addictions and trying to cope with the daily struggle of recovery, as evidenced by Day’s case.
After relocating to Boise, Day lived out of his vehicle and worked several minimum wage jobs but eventually wound up finding a permanent career as an ironworker with Iron Workers Local No. 732.
He helped build the Portneuf Health Trust Amphitheatre, Panera Bread and the South Valley Connector.
He credits his success to continued support from friends Alex and Kaylee Evans, who gave him a roof over his head when he was homeless in Boise, his family for never giving up hope and lastly going to jail and getting the kick in the pants he desperately needed to wake him up from the nightmare he called life.
Though his official date of sobriety began on February 4, 2011, his campaign for clean will never end. And after nearly four years in Boise, he finally trusts himself to move back to Pocatello, which has been his home for about a month now.
“The ironworkers saved my life,” Day said. “It took me getting a career and a couple years sobriety before I could come back home, but now I know I can stay clean anywhere. No problem.”
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