FBI, DEA produce documentary warning teens about heroin
On Aug. 15, Tina Louden sat at her kitchen table in small-town Missouri, clutching the urn that held her daughter's ashes.
She caressed its smooth, pink surface, embossed with a golden rose and inscribed with her name, Ashley N. Shannon, followed by her dates of birth and death. It had been eight years since Ashley started using heroin and three years since it killed her.
On this day, a Monday, Ashley, a dark-haired mother of two, would have turned 28.
Moved by impulse, Louden grabbed her cellphone and snapped a grainy photo of her face resting on the urn's rim. Then she started typing.
"To my daughter's drug dealer," she wrote, "this is how I spend my daughter's birthday now."
" . . . how do you live with yourself???"
She posted it to Facebook. More than 250,000 people have clicked "share" in the week since.
That was exactly what Louden intended. Her message, brief and sharp, ended with a call to action: "I don't normally post pics like this but let's make this go viral so all the drug dealers see what they are doing to our families."
Louden's honest, raw confession is just the latest in a string of online posts and even death announcements that have dared to talk about topics long-held as taboos: addiction, drugs, mental illness.
For decades in obituaries, mourners were expected to fill in blanks. "Died suddenly" or "passed away at home" became code phrases for "overdose" or "suicide."
But a new wave of parents, like Louden, are harnessing the Internet to turn their children's deaths into something meaningful.
As Alexandra Rockey Fleming reported in The Washington Post this month, the conventional death notice is changing: "She will be best remembered for her free spirit, love of life, and the incredible strength she had while enduring so much pain that came from her struggles with addiction," said the death announcement for Kelsea Brandt of Forest Hill, Md., whose mother, Wendy Messner, has founded a group called Rage Against Addiction with the mission of making "rock bottom the foundation for a new life."
Louden's post, she told TV station KSDK, has inspired addicts and their families to message her. They say her photo moved them to get help.
"Maybe it would change somebody," Louden told KSDK. "We live through this pain, every birthday, every holiday, it's not the same. Part of our heart is gone."
Prescription pills came first for Ashley, before she moved to heroin. For five years, she struggled to get clean, KSDK reported, to be healthy for her two young daughters. But on July 4, 2013, Ashley overdosed. She was 24.
"I know Ashley took the drugs, but I still believe the dealer should be somewhat responsible," Louden told TV station KSDK. "They are selling this poison knowing that it could kill you."
It's all painfully timely. Overdoses are at a record high, with public health officials saying the nation is in "crisis."
Adjusting for population, the drug overdose mortality rate has risen by 425 percent since 1982, The Washington Post previously reported. Drug overdose deaths have outpaced fatalities from motor vehicle accidents and, in what one official called "a silver lining to what is absolutely a tragedy," there has been a grim increase in organ donation. In the past five years, organ donors who died of overdoses jumped by 50 percent, according to Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network data.
In 2014, an estimated 914,000 people aged 12 and older had reportedly used heroin, a 145 percent increase since 2007, according to the World Drug Report from the United Nations. The reason, according to the report, is simple: As law enforcement and the medical community crack down on prescription drug abuse, addicts are turning elsewhere for their next high. And in the United States right now, heroin is cheap.
Just last week, 26 people overdosed on heroin in a span of four hours in the small West Virginia city of Huntington, population 49,000. "An overdose outbreak of similar magnitude in New York City (population 8.4 million) would affect more than 4,400 people," according to a Washington Post analysis.
And more recently, officials have begun finding heroin supplies laced with a mixture of other dangerous opioids. One is Carfentanil, an animal tranquilizer strong enough to knock out an elephant.
Law enforcement can hardly keep up. Hospitals are overwhelmed. Families feel helpless. It's why parents like Louden have turned to one of the few things in their control - the Internet.
Although her town of De Soto, Mo., is small, Louden told KSDK she cannot know whether her daughter's drug dealer saw her grieving Facebook post. But, she said, maybe somebody's drug dealer did.