When Jacques first started snorting the drug with friends in Cranston, she was 21 and studying to be a nurse at the Community College of Rhode Island. She was a single mother with two sons she adored. Addiction wasn’t part of her plan.
But before she realized it, says Jacques, she was hooked. Eventually, she was using heroin up to six times a day. She didn’t love the drug. She didn’t even feel particularly good on it. But without it, she’d slip into a withdrawal so nausea-inducing that she couldn’t get out of bed in the morning.
In 1999, Jacques dropped out of school. She left her kids with family and began living on the streets of downtown Providence to have better access to heroin. She shoplifted to feed her $150-a-day addiction. She broke into homes. She stole a car. At night she slept in Waterplace Park, under bridges, or in abandoned buildings.
Eventually, like so many addicts, she began getting arrested. Over the course of her 10-year addiction, she cycled through the ACI 15 times. “I didn’t want to be a criminal, but I couldn’t get away from the drug,” says Jacques, who was eventually paroled to a residential treatment program in Pawtucket and has now been clean for more than a year.
“I’ve been saying it for a long time,” says the Providence police’s Verdi. “Drugs drive crime.” Most addicts, he says, shoplift or break into homes to support their habits. Others deal drugs or turn to prostitution. Last year in Providence, there were 150 heroin-related arrests.
Viewing addiction as a disease has increasingly come into the medical mainstream. As Dr. Josiah Rich of Memorial Hospital notes, “People see drug addiction as some kind of moral weakness, but it’s not a question of needing to ‘pull yourself together.’ ” By changing the brain’s neurochemistry so an addict cannot physically function without it — a process that can take days or weeks — heroin creates a “particularly brutal” form of dependence. Addiction, says Rich, is a “chronic, relapsing disease” — one comparable to other long-term conditions, such as diabetes, and equally demanding of long-term treatment
As it stands, though, the infrastructure for responding to the situation remains, at best, very limited.
Almost 60 percent of all heroin users in Providence and Kent counties are arrested each year. By contrast, says Jim Gillen, director of patient advocacy group RICARES, only 20 percent of the heroin users in Rhode Island are currently receiving treatment — and that, he says, is a “high estimate.”
A vicious cycle
In 1971, when President Richard M. Nixon launched the modern war on drugs (prompted, in part, by concern over high levels of heroin use among US soldiers returning from Vietnam), two-thirds of the related spending was directed toward treatment.