10 Years Later, Reckoning with Opportunities Lost in the Battle Against Opiate Addiction

Dec 28, 2015

A red plastic box has gathered dust behind some camping gear in my basement for the past ten years. I haven't opened it—I don't think I've even touched it—since I moved into my home on Cape Cod in 2005. It's filled with all the stuff I collected as the lead reporter on a two-day newspaper series called, "Opiates in Our Towns."

There are reports and notebooks, newspaper clippings, and more.

"Letters," Karen Andreas observed recently, as she sifted through the material. "A note from the publisher: 'Great work.'"

Karen Andreas was one of the editors I worked with a decade ago, when The Salem News was the first newspaper in New England to report a disturbing trend—what's now known as the opioid epidemic.

"It's fun to go through this stuff, but also eerie," Andreas said. "And it's really interesting that you kept it."

Andreas is now the publisher of the North of Boston Media group, which includes the "Eagle Tribune" and "The Salem News." I brought the red box to her office in Lawrence. I wanted to talk about some of the things inside. 

Ten years ago, a multi-day series of newspaper stories highlighted the growing heroin-pain pill problem on the North Shore. The source material for the reporting, as well as notes of thanks, were stored in this red plastic box.
Credit Sean Corcoran

She picked up the old front page and read aloud from it: "'A heroin epidemic has hit the North Shore, and the victims are not the usual suspects. They are middle class kids from the suburbs who start experimenting with prescription drugs for fun. But before very long they are addicts, desperate to find the next fix. Heroin and its legal sister drug, OxyContin, are destroying families and police predict the area is on the brink of a major crime wave.'

"I remember that," Andreas said. "I could recite it. And the issue is not going away."

We sifted through the box together, and I realized it was the letters inside that kept me away all these years. I couldn't face them. They are filled with gratitude and hope. Shamed parents of teens and twenty-somethings thanking me, praising me, saying, now that the story's out there, things will change. People will take action. A decade later, I knew it didn't happen. Things just got worse.

Like everyone else, we did not do a good job of keeping the news front and center. And that is what we're doing differently now.

"We really did a very good series and a very good job at informing the public of what the problems were," Andreas said. "But, like everyone else, we did not do a good job of keeping the news front and center. And that is what we're doing differently now, with our series that just came out."

"The Salem News" is marking the 10th anniversary of our first series with new multi-day projects looking at the heroin/pain pill issue. They produced one earlier this year, and a second series just finished last week.

Reporters on the projects talked with some of the same people I originally did. But they didn't find Shawn Harnish, the 22-year-old Peabody kid who went from varsity baseball player at Bishop Fenwick High School to a lying-and-stealing heroin addict. We put his picture on the front page, and he became the face of the North Shore's emerging opiate problem.

"He was the one that was living in the motel," I reminded Andreas. "And I when went to interview him the first time, I looked at his bed, and on his bed was this blanket, and it was covered with dozens and dozens of cigarette burns, for every time he did heroin with a cigarette and fell asleep. And I thought, what a lifestyle…."

"I'll tell you though, Sean," Andreas said. "That's what really good journalism is all about. You were able to develop this relationship with this person who then trusted you enough to say, yes, use my name and tell my story because I want to help someone else. I take great pride in that, and certainly you should."

For the past year, coverage of the opiate epidemic has been everywhere. But I couldn't shake the feeling we all missed an opportunity.

At home, I looked inside the box and found a manila envelope with a hand-held tape recorder and about a dozen tiny cassette tapes. Two of the tapes were labeled "Shawn Harnish." I wondered if he lived.

Playing one of the cassettes, I heard the voice of Jon Blodgett. He was the new District Attorney in Essex County when I went to his office with this tape recorder. I had quoted him on the front page saying, "We feel the breeze, but we know the hurricane is coming."

Ten years after I first interviewed Blodgett, I returned to his downtown Salem office. We talked about the fact that, in the weeks after the newspaper series aired, thousands of parents showed up at local high school forums, desperate to keep their kids safe from heroin.

"I think we were making some progress," he said. "It seemed to sort of, I think, slow down. Not on our part. But the community—the effort sort of slowed down, it didn't get the attention it was getting when this article first came out, which really heightened awareness. Now, within the last year and a half, it's spiked up again, the interest, because of the unacceptable number of deaths from opiates."

Last year, more than 1,000 people died in Massachusetts from opiates. But Blodgett said there's a solution—treatment on demand. If someone wants to escape the lying and dying lifestyle of heroin addiction, he said there should be a place to go with a program that works for at least 30 days.

"We can talk—and I have for a long time—we can talk about this issue," he said, "but until political leaders have the will to step up and tell their constituents that we are going to spend, whatever that figure is, it may be billions of dollars, to provide the beds, to get treatment on demand, or long term treatment, we are not going to get out of this problem."

During the past decade, Blodgett has instituted drug diversion programs and expanded juvenile and youthful diversion programs throughout the Essex County. From education to law enforcement, he said that he's done everything he could to slow or stop the opiate epidemic. It's only recently that state leaders have embraced the issue. But raising taxes for long-term, treatment-on-demand is not part of the debate on Beacon Hill.

"We can have task forces until the cows come home," Blodgett said, when asked about Beacon Hill's response to the opiate epidemic. "But unless we end up having the political will to do what has to be done, we can talk all we want about this issue and it's not going to be solved."

Back in my car, I was thinking about calling the politicians and asking about their plans for new laws. I wanted to hold them accountable for doing so little for so long. But then I thought: what about me? I knew more about the OxyContin-Heroin connection than probably any journalist in the country. But I took all my notes, all my tapes—everything—and I put them in a box. I went on to do other stories. Where were the politicians, where was I?

And what happened to Shawn Harnish? What happened to the 22 year old who decided to give his name, share his story and become the face of the North Shore's first generation of young heroin addicts?

I found him the same way everyone finds people these days. Facebook. Some additional online snooping led me to his mother's house in Salem, where I knocked, and she answered the door.

"I was looking for Shawn," I told his mom.

"He's home," she said.

"Is he? Do you think that he'll talk to me?"

I didn't know if Shawn Harnish wanted to see me. The last time I saw him it was through smudged plexiglass at Middleton Jail. Two people came to visit him there—his mom and me. But in a moment, there he is—clear-eyed and smiling, with an adorable little girl at his side.

"How have you been?" he asked.

"I've been good. I'm happy to see you, like, on the other side."

Reporter Sean Corcoran with Shawn Harnish. A decade ago Harnish was a down-and-out heroin addict living in a dingy Beverly motel. Today he is advocating for better, long-term treatment for people desperate to get out of the cycle of addiction.
Credit Sean Corcoran

It was amazing to see him like this: clean, and a father. We stepped outside to talk, and I asked him about his daughter.

"I'm privileged enough to be able to work out of the house by working online," he said. "So I'm with her all the time now. Life is good. Life, thankfully is good."

Ten years ago, in that dingy little motel room, it was all so hopeless.

"I mean, it was a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week hustle. Up at 8 a.m., out to 9 p.m., just so I could feel a little high from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m., before I passed out and had to do it again. It was just a sick cycle that you can't get out of. And even if you want to, there's nowhere to go to get out of it. That was always the problem."

Harnish, the recovering addict and convicted criminal, sounded a lot like District Attorney Jon Blodgett. Treatment on demand. Spend the money. Give people a way out.

"Massachusetts has a lot of problems with how they treat people looking for help," Harnish said. "They have detoxes. But detox isn't long term, 30-day residential programs. People that go to detox for the first time getting clean, they need 30 days. Six days isn't going to help them. They need a 30-day program, straight and flat. At least that gives them the base. "

I asked Harnish why he let me use his name in the newspaper a decade ago. When I visited him in the motel room, he always wanted to be anonymous. It was when he was clear-thinking and in jail that he agreed to let me use his name and put his picture on the front page.

"I figured if I put my name out there," he said, "put a name to the face, and especially the fact I went to private school and everything else, if the parents read it, maybe they don't have the walls up. 'No, not my kid.' It might help one person. And I know it did because I actually got a lot of letters. I got a lot of letters in jail. I got a few letters in jail from mothers who read the story and said it really helped."

I tell Harnish that I received letters too, but I put them in a box. They're hard to face. Still, the journalism I did with him was probably my best, my most important. And it's good to see him alive and clean. No longer the face of addiction, to me he's the symbol of hope—hope that there's a way out.

***

More info:

Read the original reporting series in The Salem News, from 2005, on what would be come known as the "opiate epidemic."

Recently, The Salem News revisited the opiate/heroin story with a new multi-day series.