“People are going to use, so let’s teach them how to use and limit the use correctly. This limits the damage and harm they can do to themselves until they reach a path of recovery.”
Across the United States, opioid addiction has quickly risen to become one of the most pressing issues facing the country. With over 72,000 national overdoses in 2017, the battle to stop the illicit use of these substances continues. In Missouri, Eric Randall Moffitt is working on the ground to help people quit drugs, while also advising the state legislature on the best policies to counter the crisis. After serving time behind bars and struggling with addiction himself, Mr. Moffitt decided, upon leaving prison, to devote his life to helping others escape addiction. Here, he joins Merion West to tell his story about the journey from drug user to activist and to share his thoughts on how best to reverse the growing number of deaths from opioids.
What was it like, day-to-day, to be an addict?
I wish I could say that it is hard to remember, but, honestly, I think it’s a feeling I will never forget. A typical day began with me taking pills, either for pain or because I was eventually addicted. I would take them, and I would get a feeling of improved self-image and relaxation. It made me feel like everything was okay, and all the anxiety would drop away. When they would wear off, I would start feeling mild irritation. As time moved on, the number of pills I was taking would change. So would the route: from oral to intravenous. I would inject, and I wouldn’t even feel what you would typically call high. I would feel normal.
Withdrawal was the worst feeling of sickness I had ever felt in my life. It is like the worst flu bug you could ever imagine, and you know that all it takes is another injection or another dose to feel okay again.
A typical day was horrifying because it was spent in an ever-increasing amount of drugs taken and personal lows. I was stealing from people, lying, and pursuing multiple doctors to keep up a facade of everything being normal. All the while, I was completely falling apart inside. That is the best description I can give without falling to tears.
We’re all familiar with the media and popular culture depictions of life as a prison inmate. What are some of the biggest challenges and how does it compare to how it is depicted in popular culture?
The first crime I committed here in Missouri was a minor charge, which led me to a county jail. To tell you the God’s honest truth, the county jail was very boring. There were no stabbings or any of the stuff you might see on Sons Of Anarchy. You would get up at the same time every day, wait to go to bed at night, and start all over again the next day.
The first time I was in the Department of Corrections, I was first sentenced to 120-day mandatory treatment. The treatment itself was very strict and structured, which caused me a lot of anxiety. There was always the fear that you would be ejected from treatment and sent back to your time, which meant you would be charged with your original sentence. Mine was a 5-year sentence for 2nd-degree assault. Through treatment, they really try to elevate your anxiety to put the fear in you that you may be sent to a medium or maximum security prison. At that time, I had no idea what real prison was like.
The first time I actually did time in the general population was in a medium-security prison. There were moments where it was very tense. You could tell when people were about to become violent with each other—or, at least, there was the threat of it. You could feel an evil sense in the air, and everything shrunk down when this was going to happen. Personally, I didn’t have many problems because I knew a lot of people in prison already. By this time, I had built a reputation on the streets where people knew me.
Compared to the dramatization, it was not as scary for me. But this was, in part, because by that time I had already committed so many crimes and knew so many criminals. But there were moments in my multiple sentences where there was high anxiety, high tension, and a great sense of fear. I committed assaults and was assaulted in prisons. There were lockdowns where rapes and stabbings occurred. The dramatizations are there for a reason to dramatize something that does really take place, but they have a tendency to either blow it out of proportion or underscore it. I would say prison is really about three notches below the standard level of dramatization you may see on TV.
Now, you are no longer in prison, and you work as an advisor to legislators in Missouri and help people dealing with addiction. Can you describe that transition?
I was released from prison for the last time on January 19, 2016. I was released in good health, with a good attitude, and I had already been in recovery. My recovery started on October 16, 2014. My last use was the day I turned myself into the Department of Corrections, and I remained abstinent through my entire stay. This is sometimes not easy to do, as Missouri prisons are absolutely flooded with drugs.
When I was released, I decided I was going to do something worthwhile with my life, but I didn’t know what yet. I was released to a halfway house in Northwest Missouri and, from the day I got there, I started involving myself in different [anti-drug] organizations.
Do you feel that there is something about your unique background that helps you, in particular, reach other people struggling with drug addiction?
Absolutely. The problem we faced in the past was there were too many people who had never experienced the trauma or the lifestyle telling lawmakers what we needed. I believe it helps nowadays that there is a movement for people with a shared lived experience in substance abuse and mental health to step forward and work in the field. The most important thing right now to help change the tide is to have people who know what it is like share what they believe would have worked to have helped them [back when they were using].
These people know how lonely, and horrifying the bleak, hopeless outlook of life you develop can be. I share this with the decision-makers from time to time, how there were points in my life where I truly thought ending my life was better than going on doing what I was doing. It was truly the most horrible and lonely prison I had ever been in. Worse than any prison that I had been locked up in with physical walls.
So in my daily life, my experience with the horrible period of my life, is my greatest asset. It was the greatest training I could have possibly had to do what I do today. It is really sad to say I had to go through all of that to be as effective as I am now, but I am also glad that not everybody has had to come to recovery the same way as I did. It would have killed some people.
Are there any recent pieces of legislation passed in Missouri that you find particularly encouraging?
The one thing we are looking at right now in Missouri is syringe access programs. This is part of the pathway for harm reduction, and it is something that is being accepted very slowly. Two steps forward, one step back. Harm reduction is something that is catching on slowly and is what a lot of my work is focused on lately. I educate legislators on harm reduction.
People are going to use, so let’s teach them how to use and limit the use correctly. This limits the damage and harm they can do to themselves until they reach a path of recovery.
We have had a constant fight in Missouri with the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (PDMP). The PDMP is a program that monitors every single person receiving prescriptions at the pharmacy, county and state level. It acts as a watchdog program for people who are doctor shopping. We are the only state in the country right now that does not have a statewide monitoring program. It is almost entirely because of one legislator, who has blocked it every session.
This is where I differ with many of my colleagues. When a prescription monitoring program is instituted, overdoses begin to rise. When you institute a watchdog program, physicians get very scared and reticent about what prescriptions they write. They have to tell patients they can’t refill or write new prescriptions. So when people are doctor shopping under these programs, they come off from the supply immediately.
They, however, are already addicted and are dependent on opioids. You can’t just cut them off because they start seeking other sources on the street, like illicit heroin. Right now this is the weapons-grade Fentanyl being mixed with nearly all the heroin on the street. We are seeing people die at horrifying rates once these drug monitoring programs are instituted.
To wrap it up, as someone working on the ground on this issue, what can you tell those who are trying to understand the opioid crisis and how we got here?
Number one, opioid use disorder is a different monster today than it used to be. It is the one thing that is stacking bodies faster than any other substance abuse we’ve seen in our history. I would say that there is help out there. In Missouri, I would encourage all of my colleagues and advocates to back medication-assisted treatment. Support the medications that treat opioid abuse that are proven to work. Stop putting your money behind Vivitrol because Alkermes [its manufacturer] is purchasing everybody. Start backing the ones that have a proven, gold standard track record.
Number two, please help us back harm reduction and syringe access programs. Come on board with us for comprehensive user engagement sites and safe injection sites. Understand that we are not enabling people to continue using; we are trying to keep people from dying so we can get them into recovery.
The last thing I would say is that it is going to be a long fight. We are all going to have our hearts broken. I have lost 17 friends in a little over the last calendar year. Either from the violence that comes with drug use or from an overdose. We have to stay the course so that we do not let people who have no stake in the game decide how we treat our people. We need to become a united front and stop bickering over our different approaches.
Another problem is that so many people working on this issue are afraid they won’t get personal credit for what they are doing. But this is not a popularity contest. We are trying to save a generation of people who are out there suffering and dying.