FBI spokesman recalls the start of this opioid crisis

FBI Community Outreach Specialist Charles Grady was a narcotics police officer in Hamden in the early 1990s when he started to see the opioid lines form, literally.

Back then he was familiar with the typical street drugs: Marijuana and cocaine — prescription drugs weren’t a thing yet.

But then he saw a line formed in New Haven when he was working undercover. The line of people stretched around the corner, and led to a doctor’s office, where people secured prescriptions for those drugs that would eventually create the opioid crisis, powerful painkillers like Vicodin and Percocet.

“We had no idea what we were seeing,” Grady said during his presentation Thursday before the Milford Rotary Club. “These were just pills.”

One of Grady’s informants was in that line, and Grady pulled him aside to ask what was going on. The informant told him that a prescription of 30 pills could make him $300. He’d hop on the highway and get off at exit 57 or 58 and sell the pills for $10 each to housewives and professionals living in affluent towns like Guilford and Madison.

The doctor selling the prescriptions was financing his own addiction, and the pharmacies were getting kickbacks, Grady said.

“How did we get here today, because it was just pills,” Grady repeated.

Today, every day in the United States more victims of the opioid crisis make headlines due to fatal overdoses. In fact, according to Acting DEA Administrator Chuck Rosenberg, “The numbers are appalling — tens of thousands of Americans will die this year from drug-related deaths, and more than half of these deaths are from heroin and prescription opioid overdoses.”

Last year in Connecticut alone, 917 people died of accidental opioid overdoses. Every hour 93 people in the United States die from overdose, Grady said.

When he was a police officer working in narcotics, he thought the addicts had only themselves to blame. They wanted to get high, and they made the choice to use drugs.

But Grady doesn’t think like that anymore. He told the Rotary Club members gathered at Gusto Trattoria Italian Restaurant in Milford Thursday that this addiction is a disease and that these drugs make the brain think it cannot live without the drug.

Today he is trying to change the dialogue and the perception. If you had a neighbor with an illness, you might bake them a meal and bring it over. Not so if you found out your neighbor was addicted to heroin, he said.

Grady insisted the perception has to change, and that it’s going to take a village to fight the opioid crisis.

So again, how did the crisis come to be?

Grady goes back to the medical profession, and while he certainly doesn’t hold all doctors at fault, he said there were some that escalated the crisis. When it started, doctors and dentists prescribed pain medication at about 30 a pop so patients could “get ahead of the pain,” he said, adding that insurance reimbursements were tied to the number of pills prescribed.

A person who used up his prescription, maybe got another one on the road to addiction, eventually found themselves hitting the streets for illegal heroin once the prescription ran dry.

Grady and the Rotarians also talked about marijuana as a gateway drug. Frosty Smith, who started an organization called Drug Free Milford years ago, said Milford was permeated with drugs. “Pot is definitely an entry level drug,” Smith said, noting that it desensitizes users to the dangers of drug use.

Grady agreed, saying the danger comes from using substances to mask physical or emotional pain. Habit leads to dependence, which leads to addiction.

Today the country is getting accustomed to hearing about the dangers of opioid addiction. And already, people are getting desensitized: It’s old news, it doesn’t affect them.

But Grady said it’s time to stop thinking the problem is about “them” or that those people “over there” have to do something about it.

“We all need to be engaged,” he said, asking the people listening to help spread the word.

He also talked about the FBI documentary “Chasing the Dragon,” which examines the epidemic of prescription drug and opioid abuse from first-person accounts by addicts and their family members about their experiences. In September, the Milford Kiwanis Club and Milford Prevention Council hosted a presentation of the documentary at the Parsons Veterans Memorial Auditorium, and Grady would like more people to see it, and to watch it with their children.

He said it’s time to really get serious: His daughter knows four people in their mid to late twenties who have died this year already from opioid overdoses.

“It is a disease,” he said.

“It alters the way the brain functions,” he added.

This battle, Grady said, “takes an entire village.”