On June 19, just two days after Dylann Roof, a self-styled White supremacist, shot and killed nine African Americans praying at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, an unusual Facebook posting drew international attention.
“I love you Dylann, even in the midst of the dark and pain you have caused, but more importantly, HE loves you,” wrote Marcus Stanley, a popular gospel singer who lives outside of Richmond, Virginia.
Stanley, 29, is familiar with being a victim. He was shot eight times during a robbery attempt in the streets of Baltimore in 2004. Surgeons reattached his colon, but had to remove half of his stomach and his pancreas. He lost his spleen and small intestine. Two bullets that were too dangerous to remove remain in place and left him partially paralyzed on his right side.
In his years of recovery, Stanley became addicted to painkillers and then opioids. “I became dependent upon prescription drugs. I couldn’t even get up and walk across the room,” he said.
Stanley’s story reflects a dangerous trend in American society. In 2013, about half a million people were using heroin, a 150 percent increase over the level in 2013.
“In addition, persons using heroin are abusing multiple other substances, especially cocaine and opioid pain relievers,” states a report released this summer by the centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The biggest offenders are Whites (predominately women) and Hispanics, the CDCP reports. Many got their start as innocent patients in hospitals or clinics while suffering from injuries or disease.
Just how many is hard to calculate.
“We don’t have very good representative data on how common it is for someone to first be exposed to prescription opioids, become addicted, and move on to heroin,” said Christopher M. Jones, who has a doctorate in pharmacy and is senior advisor, Office of Public Health Strategy and Analysis, Office of the Commissioner, at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Studies vary widely reflecting how many patients become addicted to opioids as they are being treated for pain. The percentage could range from 1.3 percent to 40 percent, according to Jones. As they move up the addiction chain, they may mingle their opioid use with heroin, cocaine or other narcotics.
Another route is for people to move from prescription painkillers to over-the-counter painkillers and then heroin. This occurs because of basic supply-and-demand pricing. As law enforcement cracks down on over-the-counter drugs because they are used to make methamphetamine, their cost goes up. Many switch to heroin because it is cheaper.
On Monday, the White House announced a $5 million program to curb heroin use and trafficking with an emphasis on treatment, rather than prosecution, of drug addicts. The program will initially be funded for one year in 15 states, mostly in New England and the Northeast, and will pair drug intelligence officers with public health coordinators to trace the distribution channels for heroin.
Michael Botticelli, the director of National Drug Control Policy, which will carry out the plan, said it is intended to address “the heroin and prescription opioid epidemic as both a public health and a public safety issue.”
Health professionals can stem the dangerous and unexpected consequences of legal painkiller use by better screening of patients. According to Jones, they can use state prescription drug monitoring and interviews to check on other drug and alcohol use before making choices about painkillers for patients. Lower dosages may be prescribed and troubled patients may be placed in substance-abuse programs.
Stanley may have slipped through the system. After being shot, he was treated for months at Mount Sinai hospital in Baltimore and then was transferred to Virginia Commonwealth University Health System in Richmond.
It took him six years to become drug free. He tried programs, including the Betty Ford Clinic, before finding an addiction cure at the faith-based one, New Life For Youth clinic outside of Richmond.
The religious nature of the program dovetailed with his music career. Besides R&B and classical, he has focused on gospel. He has recorded RCA, Jive, World Wide Gospel and Verity Records (now RCTA Inspiration). He recorded mostly in Washington or Baltimore, but has had gigs in 47 states including private events. Hits include “Great is Thy Faithfulness” and “Because He Lives.” His Facebook page shows 131,738 “likes.”
When he heard about the Charleston shootings, he was inundated with painful memories. He says he didn’t know the details as he went to his home, but he prayed. The next morning he went to work.
At that point, Roof had not been arrested. Stanley decided to send him a message through social media.
“I wouldn’t have done this unless he was on the run,” Stanley says. “These things often end up with the man killing himself. I didn’t want that to happen.”
His message instantly went viral across the globe. Roof was soon captured in North Carolina.
“The only way this country can heal is to come together in love and not in hate,” says Stanley who notes that he’s working more on a ministry now but still produces music, without using drugs.
Peter Galuszka is a freelance journalist who lives in Virginia.