How a Reddit Forum Has Become a Lifeline for Opioid Addicts
Reddit is a modern-day canary in the coal mine for the people of Appalachia – a region of the United States disproportionately affected by the opioid epidemic.
Since the presidential election, a Reddit forum called r/opiates has transformed into a lifesaving map for addicts navigating a minefield frequently filled with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid nearly 100 times more potent than morphine.
In 2017 alone, r/opiates has featured fentanyl warnings for New York, Delaware, Virginia, Massachusetts and North Carolina. These warnings, which signal the presence of fentanyl in certain batches of drugs, are making a difference, the moderator spinderalla69 said over private message.
“I remember seeing comments on other warnings we’ve posted that people in those areas do see the mentioned stamps, and then avoid them, or they comment that they have had friends overdose on the same stamp, confirming that whatever is in the stamp/dope is extremely potent and dangerous,” said spinderalla69, who cherishes the pseudo-anonymity woven into Reddit’s ethos and declined to share her identity.
R/opiates is not for the faint of heart. To date, the subreddit has amassed more than 37,000 subscribers representing the entire addiction spectrum – habitual users, addicts desperate to get clean, and everything in between.
This past month alone featured a post from one user experimenting with old opium tablets, another poking fun at being dope sick and a brief obituary for a moderator who died 31 May from an overdose probably involving fentanyl.
One person directly affected by r/opiates was Aaron, 27, of McDowell County, West Virginia. Aaron, who faces legal issues related to drug dealing and abuse, withheld his real name out of fear of arrest.
Aaron’s descent into addiction began at 13 when he abused the pain medication hydrocodone. A few years later, his father was prescribed oxycontin after crushing his back in an accident.
“I snuck to his room, broke one up into four pieces and ate one,” Aaron said. “About five minutes later, I was in pure bliss. Warm waves flooded my body. I decided to take another piece and then I nodded off.”
By the time he was 20, Aaron was snorting five to eight 30mg oxycontins per day. Since then, he has tried nearly every drug imaginable and has unsuccessfully used suboxone and methadone to detox. Today, he’s more than 80 days sober thanks to kratom, an herb the Drug Enforcement Agency once considered making a schedule 1 drug (a list that currently includes heroin).
“Around my area, I believe a lot of people use [opioids] out of boredom. There’s no jobs, no way to have fun besides video games and riding four-wheelers and motorcycles. There’s nowhere to go except a run-down mall over in another county,” Aaron said. “The pill epidemic is a lot more expensive at $35 to $50 for an oxycontin 30mg. A lot of people need two to get through the day, and a lot of people don’t want to wake up feeling sick so they’re willing to rob, steal or kill to get their fix. Crack did leave some people bad off, but not like the pill sickness.”
Aaron credits r/opiates with helping him learn about kratom and giving his life purpose. As a way to pay it forward, he’s provided fentanyl warnings in West Virginia.
“People’s pressing a fake 215, and crushing up ginseng pills mixing them with fentanyl and some other stuff and selling as heroin,” Aaron, who goes by the handle of Optimistic-angel1 on Reddit, wrote in a 2 February post on the website – making note of activity in neighboring Mercer County, which sits just east of McDowell.
While the overdose warnings on Reddit may be a new trend, addicts have been no strangers to information sharing, said Dr Michael Brumage, executive director of the Kanawha-Charleston health department in West Virginia. Brumage has heard of addicts setting up networks to share information on bad heroin batches in the past while working with the department’s needle exchange program.
“While we don’t directly test for fentanyl, we are detecting an increase in the amount of fentanyl mixed in with heroin from asking our patients and from reports from law enforcement officials,” Brumage said. “We are even seeing reports of fentanyl-laced marijuana, which is a new and dangerous finding.”
These fentanyl warnings are reaching more opioid users on Reddit than ever before. Since November, r/opiates has grown in users by 42%. This number reflects a twofold increase in user growth when compared to the same timeframe starting in 2014.
Fentanyl’s potency has been linked to a surge in overdoses nationwide. Between 2005 and 2014, the rate of opioid-related inpatient stays increased 64% while the rate of opioid-related emergency room visits nearly doubled, according to a new report from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ). A closer look at counties in and around Appalachia prove this deadly trend persists.
Montgomery County, in western Ohio, saw more than 400 people die from overdoses this year alone while West Virginia has been hit so hard that a state program providing burial assistance for poor families has nearly run out of money. In 2015, the state with the highest rate of overdose deaths was West Virginia (41.5 per 100,000 people), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Other states from the Appalachian region rounding out the top five were Kentucky (29.9 per 100,000) and Ohio (29.9 per 100,000).
At the crux of why West Virginia remains an overdose hotbed is the state’s over-reliance on industries such as coal mining and its high unemployment rate, Business Insider reported. The state is also in dire need of improved substance abuse support. West Virginia only had 750 drug rehab beds in 2015 to service a population of 60,000 people who identified as needing treatment, the Charleston Gazette-Mail reported. For many of these addicts, r/opiates has become a life preserver in a worsening storm.
A lifeline was exactly what Dustin Cinnamon, of Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, was looking for from r/opiates last summer.
A decade-long opioid addict, Cinnamon was about to turn himself in for a 2013 felony drug possession charge that fell through the cracks. Knowing how lonely his five-month jail stint would be, Cinnamon asked r/opiates users to mail him letters (he received one). He also weaned himself off heroin using suboxone in order to mitigate withdrawal symptoms.
Released in March, Cinnamon almost immediately participated in a University of Kentucky study on opioids. He earned roughly $5,400 for spending six weeks in the study. Every day, Cinnamon agreed to swallow a placebo or a non-FDA-approved pill used in treating chemotherapy-induced nausea. He then had to snort an opioid or placebo and perform certain tasks like pressing a button numerous times while his vital signs were monitored.
Cinnamon has since moved to New York City and continues to visit r/opiates. He praised the subreddit’s honesty and support. Cinnamon said he had always felt comfortable sharing his real identity on Reddit because he hasn’t been involved in any major drug dealing-related crimes in a long time. He believes r/opiates will only continue to grow as the stigma around addiction continues to lift across the country.
“For a long time, we were afraid to say anything, voice our opinion about addiction,” Cinnamon said. “We have people dying left and right, we have sons and daughters of senators and congressmen and lobbyists suffering, and I think that what we are seeing is the culmination of these issues being transformed into a dialogue that we are finally admitting that it’s time to have.”