He Lost Nearly Everything To Addiction. Then An Arrest Changed His Life For years, people who used drugs were treated like criminals, often given long sentences. Now there's growing acceptance that addiction is a treatable disease, but shame and discrimination linger.

He Lost Nearly Everything To Addiction. Then An Arrest Changed His Life

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Early in the war on drugs, people with addictions were often treated like criminals. Now, 50 years after that war began, there's growing acceptance that addiction is a treatable disease, but shame and discrimination linger. From member station WBUR in Boston, Martha Bebinger brings us the story of one longtime drug user who's navigating life after addiction.

MARTHA BEBINGER, BYLINE: Heroin rewired and took control of Will's brain for 17 years, starting in the early 2000s.

WILL: Back then, it was - if you used drugs, people didn't want anything to do with you. I had lost everything.

BEBINGER: His license, car, job, marriage and home. It happened here on the streets of Lynn, just north of Boston. Will's 56, a former basketball player, and still moves like one. We're only using Will's first name because future landlords or employers might not take him based on the shoplifting and other drug-related crimes he committed so he could buy heroin.

WILL: Feeding that addiction, yup, feeding that monster.

BEBINGER: One morning almost three years ago, with no money or heroin, Will went into withdrawal. Shaking and vomiting, he dragged himself down the street, hoping to make a deal and feed the monster.

WILL: I had some crack, and I sold it to some undercover police. That's how I got in trouble. And so that was the game changer right there.

BEBINGER: Because instead of prison, Will was sent to a daily probation program called Community Corrections.

WILL: This office right here - this is where I went for 18 months.

BEBINGER: In this old domed brick building, Will got counseling and other elements of addiction treatment. He had classes on anger management, problem-solving and job training. Massachusetts has 18 such centers. Vin Lorenti, who oversees the program, says it started 25 years ago as a remedy for prison overcrowding.

VIN LORENTI: And at that time, there was a kind of a pivot towards this idea of substance use disorder as a disease rather than merely some kind of a lack of willpower, if you will.

BEBINGER: Today, 75 to 80% of people sent to Community Corrections in Massachusetts have a history of drug use. Since they live at home, the cost is a fraction of incarceration, and only about half the people in this program reoffend as compared to those leaving prison. But Lorenti says the war on drugs still casts a shadow.

LORENTI: Some people might think, oh, well, that's being soft with crime. But if you know somebody that struggled with substance use disorder, you know that pursuing your recovery is not something that's easy or soft.

BEBINGER: Will came out of Community Corrections trained for a job that helps drug users through that struggle. He's a recovery coach doing anything he can to keep clients alive and guide those who are ready into treatment.

WILL: It's an everyday battle and challenge, but it's gratifying for me.

BEBINGER: Will works out of an office at the Lynn Community Health Center. It's piled with donations and supplies for clients who, like Will, have lost everything.

WILL: We're looking at T-shirts, jeans, hoodies. This contains a condom.

BEBINGER: He gives people still using drugs clean needles, something that's illegal in some places. The health center's CEO, Dr. Kiame Mahaniah, hired his first recovery coaches just a few years ago, paying for them with grants.

KIAME MAHANIAH: It's very recent that people with lived experience are valued as the most important member of the team because of that lived experience. Now, it's just, yeah, unimaginable to think that we'd be able to do the work without recovery coaches.

BEBINGER: Medications are also transforming opioid addiction treatment. There are three commonly used drugs that prevent overdoses and save lives. Two are given in the privacy of a primary care office, just like care for other chronic conditions. Mahaniah says these meds relieve the symptoms of addiction so that patients can focus on rebuilding their lives.

MAHANIAH: Compared to 40 years ago, it's amazing. I mean, the difference in landscape that this has done is amazing.

BEBINGER: Will is on the oldest of the three medications, methadone. He has to go to a designated methadone clinic to get his dose. Will says he feels dismissed by some people who see him going there or who know he used heroin for many years.

WILL: You know, a lot of people are very judgmental. They like to say, that person's not going to amount to nothing. If you don't give somebody a chance, how are they going to make it in life?

BEBINGER: Will says he's grateful for the people who did take a chance on him and for his church, which he calls the foundation of his two years in recovery.

WILL: I feel happy about being where I'm at right now. And I just pray to God that I can keep doing this for a while. You know what I mean? The sky's the limit.

BEBINGER: Will is tapering off methadone and plans to continue recovery without it by summer's end. He bought a car, and he signed up for classes this fall, more training in addiction recovery so that he can help others return to a healthy, productive lives.

For NPR News, I'm Martha Bebinger in Boston.

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