The number of heroin overdoses in Shelby County nearly tripled to 77 deaths in 2016, making Memphis no stranger to the nationally growing drug epidemic.
Addicts face additional challenges in Memphis, such as poverty, drug accessibility and Memphis’ large homeless population, but treatment programs like Teen Challenge Memphis and Turning Point Recovery, as well as community leaders and law enforcement, help using a unique combination of education, work and faith.
“It’s a collaborative process between us and the city of Memphis to get people clean and sober. I think it’s going to be a long one,” said Jason Perkins, care and staff director at Teen Challenge Memphis.
One contributing factor to the growing epidemic is the city’s poverty level. Ranking as one of America’s poorer cities, according to the U.S. census data for 2015, the city of Memphis held high poverty rates than the rest of Tennessee and the nation with 26.2 percent. Though Memphis’ rate is more than other areas, the number has decreased five percent in 2017.
Newly created jobs have helped in lowering the poverty level. Bass Pro Shops, which opened in April 2015, created 600 jobs for Memphians. The opening of the Cordova area IKEA store in December 2016 did the same, employing 225 workers.
“I was really struggling before I had a job, but once I got on at Bass Pro Shops I was feeling more encouraged. I chilled out on smoking so much,” said Daniel Bradly, 21, former frequent smoker. Applicants for either job were subject to a drug test, further encouraging a more sober work force, at least temporarily.
The accessibility of drugs is another shaping factor of Memphian addiction. Police reports show instances of drugs being sold in places such as hospitals, college campuses and even near school playgrounds.
“Weed makes the world go around. It can be found anywhere in Memphis. Everyone knows at least one person that sells weed,” said 21-year-old, self- proclaimed stoner Lorenzo Reese.
The increase in drug use and crime has created a demand that suppliers continue to meet, sometimes at the expense of the buyer’s health or life.
Reports show that an increasing number of recent cases have involved fentanyl-laced heroin. According to the National Institution on Drug Abuse, fentanyl is an opioid with 50 to 100 times more strength than the narcotic pain reliever morphine. Both substances are strong enough to slow and potentially stop a user’s heart immediately upon ingestion.
Heroin laced with fentanyl is cheaper for suppliers to produce and sold at lower prices despite its deadly possibility making the poor and homeless easy targets as victims.
With new drugs being made cheap, poor people are more likely to be able to get ahold of these toxic and addictive substances, sending some into cycles of crime to support the drug habit, according to experts.
“Many of these people don’t even know what they’re really putting into their bodies. Ignorance isn’t bliss for a drug addict; it could mean death,” said Karen Dennis, local drug and alcohol counselor.”
Repeat offenders are now more often given the opportunity to take drug education classes and receive treatment to allow them to know about how the controlling substances really work and affect the human body.
“They told us that there were things like nail polish remover and alcohol in the stuff we’d been taking,” said Brittney R., 26, recovering methamphetamine addict who asked not to be identified by her last name.
Another effort in decreasing drug addiction is a change in the recovery process. Some long-term, live-in treatment centers have incorporated a regular work schedule into their program to help recovered patients transition healthily back into day-to-day life.
Holistic treatment facilities like Serenity Recovery Centers and Teen Challenge also use religion as a part of healing and recovery for treating participants. Perkins works alongside a team of health and spiritual coaches at Teen Challenge Memphis, a holistic drug and alcohol addiction treatment center, to maintain and improve the center’s 98 percent success rate for recovery.
“The solution is through long-term, residential programs where the focus is on Jesus Christ, and the Bible and what Jesus can do for us and how he can heal and make us whole again,” Perkins said.