On Your Side Investigation: Life or Death in Alabama's Heroin and Fentanyl epidemic

On Your Side Investigation: Life or Death in Alabama's Heroin and Fentanyl epidemic

CHILTON COUNTY, AL (WBRC) - Overdose deaths from Heroin and Fentanyl in Jefferson County are at an all-time high. In 2016, 100 people died from Heroin and 106 people died from Fentanyl, according to the Jefferson County Medical Examiner's Office. The overdose deaths from Fentanyl are more than double the amount in 2015.

As lawmakers in Montgomery debate whether to increase criminal penalties for these drugs, we talked to those on the front lines of the epidemic.

That included Nick Amick, 24, who started using Heroin when he was a 17-year-old at Hueytown High School.

"We just thought we were having fun," Amick said. "It quickly turned out to not be fun."

Amick and his friends became addicted, having severe withdrawals on the days they didn't get high. He was quickly using Heroin daily, buying hits measuring a tenth of a gram for $15-$20. During the worst part of his addiction, he'd shoot up two or three tenths at a time. After high school he attended Lawson State Community College, but dropped out after two semesters.

"I'd miss class or I would leave out of class because I'd be sick," said Amick. "I've had jobs here and there, but it's hard to hold down a job when you're depending on that stuff."

Amick was arrested twice for drug possession and is currently serving two years probation. We talked to him at Turning Point Foundation in Thorsby, a 90-day residential, Christ-based drug treatment program. Amick voluntarily checked himself in a month ago out of fear he'd violate his probation by relapsing and end up in prison.

"We all know prisons have drugs," said Amick. "People like us don't need to be locked up. I don't think that would have worked for me."

Amick joins a growing movement in the recovery world focused on the root problems of addiction, moving away from the belief that punishing drug users criminally will help stop drug abuse. That includes Pastor David Pendley, who joined Turning Point as Executive Director in 2013. Pendly wishes Alabama leaders would devote more resources to community corrections, drug awareness programs and the availability of affordable treatment programs.

"Consequences are not, at that moment in their life, going to scare them into being straight," he said. "They need help. They need somebody that believes in them. To me, it (jail) really hurts them. They get around other people and they find out how to use more, they get connections on drug dealers, they find out how to make drugs," said Pendley.

Over half the men at Turning Point have used Heroin or Fentanyl and demand for treatment exceeds the resources available. Turning Point hasn't had an empty bed since January 2014.

Jonathan White, Intake Director at Turning Point, said many people who call in crisis must be put on a waiting list.

"That's the really tough part of my job, having to tell people they have to wait, but unfortunately there's just not enough beds," said White.

Some men are referred to Turning Point by the courts, as an alternative to jail or prison, but that all depends on the charges they face. Under current Alabama law, the amount of drugs a person is caught with determines the severity of the crime. With Heroin, two grams or less is simple possession, two to four grams is possession with the intent to distribute and four grams or more is considered trafficking, with a mandatory minimum sentence of three years in prison.

Amick said many users buy more than four grams of Heroin or Fentanyl to feed their own addiction. Amick was caught with a smaller amount, so a judge was able to sentence him to probation.

A Senate bill sponsored by Senator Cam Ward to create a mandatory prison sentence for Heroin and Fentanyl possession was met with resistance this session. The House version passed unanimously, which adds Fentanyl to the same class as Heroin, but removes the mandatory minimums for possession. HB 203 also removes the mandatory sentence of life without parole for the highest levels of drug trafficking, changing that penalty to a life sentence with the possibility of parole.

"By working to eliminate the mandatory minimums in this bill, we are able to target the drug trafficker without inadvertently punishing an individual with an addiction," said Ward.

But the bill does not address the issues of drug treatment or community corrections, something that disappoints Circuit Judge David Carpenter of Bessemer. He points out better access to treatment could decrease illegal drug use and eventually decrease Alabama's bloated prison population.

"The Legislature should focus more on rehabilitation than punishment," said Carpenter.

Nick Amick is focused on getting better and said the tranquility of Turning Point has helped him detox both physically, but also emotionally and spiritually. He's fished at the pond on campus and played a round of golf for the first time in his life. He believes developing hobbies and interests to replace addiction and bad habits may be his key to success.

"Sending an addict to prison for getting caught once or twice, I don't feel like that's the answer," he said.

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