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Students hear about dangers of opioids

Students and faculty at West County High School and Middle School gathered in the high school gymnasium to hear about the dangers and prevalence of opioid addiction in the community and region at large.

Robert Riley II, co-founder of the Missouri Network for Opiate Reform and Recovery, was joined by others involved with the organization’s southern outreach group which meets at Mineral Area College.

Riley began his presentation by showing a short animated video depicting how addiction takes its hold on a person’s life. Next, he illustrated the statistical prevalence of addiction by asking that one-fifth of the students stand.

“Look around,” Riley said. “Statistically speaking, those are your drug addicts and alcoholics.

“Do you see how random that is? That’s because we don’t have a test that says if you’re going to be a drug addict or alcoholic. It doesn’t matter if you have one parent in the home, both parents in the home, if you’re white, African American, Hispanic or if you’re rich or poor. It affects everyone.”

Riley said 85 percent of heroin addicts start out on prescription pain pills, which are often prescribed after surgery or sports injuries.

“All opioids are highly addictive,” he said. “I used to tell [students] when you get your wisdom teeth taken out and you get that prescription, to just keep an eye on it. Now, I’m telling you guys to let your parents hold onto that prescription. Because it’ll get ahold of you before you even know it.”

Illustrating the point by having two students stand, Riley said the fastest rising demographic of heroin users are 18-24 year old white females, while the current largest overall heroin user population is made up of 18-24 year old white males.

“So whatever idea you have that it’s some tattooed guy living under a bridge, or that it’s a North St. Louis problem or East St. Louis problem — get that out of your mind. People are dying everywhere, and they’re dying out here too.”

Riley introduced Cheryl Haws, who heads up the St. Francois County meetings in affiliation with Riley’s organization. Haws’ son has battled with addiction for five years, and she spoke to the students about what addiction is like from a mother’s perspective.

“It affects the entire family whenever you have an addict in the family, or someone with substance abuse disorder,” Haws said. “If you have a friend or if you yourself have a problem, go to your mom and dad. Don’t wait. Don’t feel like they’re going to be ashamed of you or they’re going to be mad at you. They’re going to want to help you.”

Haws said after trying to help her son on her own, she was able to find help and resources through the Missouri Network for Opiate Reform and Recovery, which enabled her to more effectively provide help.

“One of the things I learned from Robert is to never give up,” she said. “That’s the information I would give to your parents because we have to learn how to deal with addiction.”

Riley then explained how an addiction to prescription painkillers can quickly spin out of control, leading to a greater risk for substance abuse. Using two student volunteers, he demonstrated how a person might take one pill at a party then develop tolerance, requiring twice as many pills to gain the same effect the next week, and twice again the next week and so on.

“What happens is on Wednesday, we don’t even make it to Friday or Saturday,” he said. “Our stomachs are starting to feel a little upset. Our hands are clammy and it kind of feels like we’re getting the flu.

“These prescription pills are highly addictive,” he said. “Your brain doesn’t know the difference between what the doctor gives you in that prescription and the heroin from the ‘dope man.’ And that’s where the switch takes place. We go get some heroin from the ‘dope man’ because it’s so much cheaper.”

Riley then told the students his own story of addiction and recovery, beginning with his father’s incarceration and ending with the work he’s able to accomplish now through his organization.

“When I was 14 years old, I found alcohol,” he said. “My story is like this: I tried whiskey the first time. Within one week, I had smoked weed, done some cocaine and I was on my way to Compton, California to smoke some PCP. That was my story. Why? Because I’m that one in five.”

Riley told how he found a sense of belonging in substance abuse, which resulted in his admittance to juvenile detention and ultimately prison on federal drugs and money laundering charges.

It was in federal prison that another inmate who was serving a life sentence told Riley that if he didn’t change something, he would also spend his life behind bars. Upon getting out of prison, Riley moved to a halfway house in St. Louis and started working a job.

He and Chad Sabora started working to help heroin addicts in St. Louis before founding the nonprofit Missouri Network for Opiate Reform and Recovery, enabling them to work to affect real change at both the state and local level. Among their accomplishments are two pieces of legislation, one related to Narcan use and one to protect drug users who call 911 when their friends overdose.

“Who would of thought?” Riley said. “I was standing behind the governor when he signed into law something I helped write on my couch — and I can’t even vote!”

Riley then took questions from the students and faculty, explaining the motivations for heroin users, the dangers of other drugs like marijuana and how to get help for those who need it.

For more information about the Missouri Network for Opiate Reform and Recovery, visit www.monetwork.org.

Robert Riley II, co-founder of the Missouri Network for Opiate Reform and Recovery, demonstrates the statistical likelihood of substance abuse by asking one-fifth of the gathered West County Middle and High School students to stand.

Robert Riley II, co-founder of the Missouri Network for Opiate Reform and Recovery, demonstrates the statistical likelihood of substance abuse by asking one-fifth of the gathered West County Middle and High School students to stand.

Robert Riley II describes the reason for Wednesday's assembly at West County, focusing on the dangers of prescription drug abuse and how it can lead to heroin usage.

Robert Riley II describes the reason for Wednesday’s assembly at West County, focusing on the dangers of prescription drug abuse and how it can lead to heroin usage.

Cheryl Haws tells students about her experience as the mother of a son suffering from heroin addiction.

Cheryl Haws tells students about her experience as the mother of a son suffering from heroin addiction.

Jacob Scott is a reporter with the Daily Journal. He can be reached at 573-518-3616 or at jscott@dailyjournalonline.com.

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