A Crisis in the Commonwealth: The Opioid Epidemic

By Kacie Brockman

Josh Justice was an all-American type of boy growing up. He was athletic, a star on his high school football and basketball team, ran cross-country and participated in almost any outdoor activity he could during his adolescence. He went on to play basketball at the University of Pikeville.

“I was the golden boy,” said Justice when describing his younger self.

This all changed when Justice started using prescription painkillers. At 9 years old, Justice remembers sipping his first sip of alcohol stolen from a friend’s father’s stash. He started consuming alcohol on a more regular basis at age 12. At 15, he started using marijuana. Soon after, he dabbled in stronger substances such as cocaine and prescription painkillers.

Justice found himself with easy access to these types of opioids. His best friend worked as a technician at his family’s pharmacy in Pikeville, Kentucky, with access to thousands of pills each shift. They were using together and he began stealing painkillers such as OxyContin, hydrocodone, and Xanax. According to Justice, this amounted to around 20,000 pills total over a six-year period of working at the pharmacy, all of which Justice and his friend were taking. At 19, Justice knew this problem of using and stealing drugs had turned into addiction.

“I did not set out to become addicted to OxyContin,” Justice said.

On March 16, 2001, Justice was involved in a car accident and was ejected from the passenger seat of his friend’s vehicle and thrown 50 feet into the air. Eighty-nine OxyContin and 300 to 400 Xanax pills were founded with the boys in the car, all stolen from the pharmacy, Justice said. All of this is subject to Justice’s recollection, attempts to obtain police reports were not obtained due to lack of information.

This accident resulted with a major spinal cord injury for Justice and he was sent to Cardinal Hill Rehabilitation Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. Justice had to use a wheelchair to get from place to place and began to do therapy to see if he would ever be able to walk again.

“All I remember was glass breaking and seeing trees upside down,” said Justice recalling his accident.

In the eyes of an addict, this injury was Justice’s gateway to get more pills to feed his addiction. He took around 12 doses of 600 mg to 1,000 mg OxyContin a day for nearly four years for his chronic spinal pain. The prescriptions that he was given for his injury by his doctor would only last him for three days of a 30-day supply, he said.He turned to buying more off of people illegally wherever he could around the Pikeville area, he said.

According to Justice, he had nearly half a million dollars in medical bills after his accident. Once he was walking again and stable enough, Justice was able to return and maintain a full-time job, he went back to his construction job at a company co-owned by his father and uncle.

He got a settlement from the car accident and spent thousands of dollars on painkillers.

At19, he began dating a woman who was a non-user who he had known from Pikeville High School. He said she was a fun time to be around and she would drink with him and smoke marijuana, but no hardcore drugs. Justice kept his girlfriend in the dark about his addiction for nearly three years. One day she caught him in the act doing lines of crushed prescription pain killers in the bathroom.

“There was no denying what was in plain sight, she saw white lines on the back of the toilet seat,” said Justice.

Later, she began using opioids, too. One day she and Justice were pulled over while driving and searched. Justice was arrested for possession of half of a Percocet pill that he claims he forgot he had on him. (This incident could not be verified from police reports.) He was first sentenced to one month in jail which was followed by one month of house arrest. Justice said he went back to jail on Oct. 6, 2004 for three months.

On the day Justice was released from jail, Dec. 16, 2004, he began his journey of sobriety. He started a 12-step recovery program for drug addiction for three months. He said he learned about addiction and replaced his obsession with drugs with working out. He found hope during his recovery program and knew that one day he could feel normal again. Justice said that nobody ever “graduates” or fully completes a recovery program. It is something you carry for the rest of your life.

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Addiction has hold in the state of Kentucky with alarming rates of overdoses, fatalities and usage. The opioid epidemic has caused the use of heroin and prescription painkillers to sky rocket in areas all across the Commonwealth. From the year 2000 to 2016, the number of opioid-related overdose deaths has increased 13 times in the United States. The epidemic has caused nationwide panic with an urgency in our region to assess the problem and implement solutions to address the issue…

Read more about Kentucky’s opioid epidemic here

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