Inside the Opioid Crisis – Once More, With Feeling

By Brandon Chewey, as told to Ronit Pinto

It’s 8pm on a Friday or a Saturday in an average American town. There are six teenagers in a room. They are most likely bored, or have nothing better to do. Their parents, married or divorced, have no idea what these kids are up to. Or do they? Do they care? Remains to be known… but what these teens are about to do will take down all six of them into the worst throes of addiction.

What begins with the occasional Xanax or Valium for fun at age 14 turns into heavy dependence on Oxycontin and then heroin within two years. Of the six teens, two will die from addiction, one continues to serve a 15-year prison sentence for a drug-related crime, and two others are lost in active addiction to this day.

This is not a hypothetical example, but the real-life story of Brandon Chewey, who has lived with addiction for 12 years. Now age 32, he’s spent the last five years clean from heroin and has found Cannabis to be his only real, true, and healthy remedy (but that’s a tale for another day). Chewey is from Asbury Park, a suburb in New Jersey that’s well acquainted with the opioid epidemic – the town has one of the densest populations of heroin use and addiction in the United States.

Today Chewey is speaking out. The following words are his.

 

I am the only one of the six who attempted to overcome the illness. With my best friends gone or lost to addiction, it allows me the time to focus on myself and establish relations with people and a better path of life in memory of my friends and loved ones who are no longer here.

There are so many minor factors that led up to my decision in striving for sobriety from opiates. It is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life and I am still haunted by my past to this day. I live in a world where I am told to get clean and follow programs and become an active member of society and to put my addiction to rest. I’ve done so and I have been a productive member of society, working and helping people and my community for the last five years.

The system has made it almost impossible for convicted addicts to remain successful in lasting recovery. Many of my close friends have relapsed and passed away from the large-scale heroin addiction in New Jersey’s Monmouth and Ocean Counties.

Now I have new friends and I have only memories of those close to me who taken by this disease, all once participants in the failed court systems, War on Drugs, and children being charged with felonies. The lifestyle that people in our local communities are truly forced to deal with is a never-ending door of addiction, poverty and incarceration.

The police in New Jersey know that marijuana is on its way to be legalized. When I beat my first case and was released from probation, prosecution detectives tried to get me to work with them as an informant. They asked me to purchase marijuana, which was shocking to me because I believed marijuana to be so petty. I was a heroin addict and they knew that, so I was wondering why they weren’t searching for heroin instead of cannabis?

I was told by one of the head detectives of the Monmouth County prosecutor’s office that “Marijuana is going to be legal soon; we recently received funds to focus our task force on marijuana recovery operation and we need to get some more arrests under our belt before it’s legalized.” I was baffled and angry. Not only did I refuse to help them, I won my case and I was off of probation for the first time in my adult life at the age of 27 years old. Six days after the judge found me not guilty and dismissed my probation, my mother’s home was raided by twenty-three officers from the Monmouth County prosecutor’s office – the very same detectives I refuse to cooperate with for the alleged heroin distribution. No heroin was recovered; however, they found my personal 2 oz. of marijuana and a few grams of hash and gave me a $130,000 bail, also charging me with “manufacturing cannabis, distribution, possession, and possession with intent to distribute.”

Thank God I was slinging pancakes at Perkins for a year straight before this happened, and that I was smart enough to save every dollar. My first six months in recovery were spent harassed by the Monmouth County prosecutor’s office. As I was fighting for my life to stay sober, they were asking me to buy marijuana, weapons, heroin, and cocaine. There is proof of these acts by the detectives in evidence, saved in my cell phone at the Monmouth County Courthouse. I also have the phone records of all the times they called me and told me to “come outside before they kick the door in and lock me up.”

My story should be “the poster boy story” to bring equal opportunity to people in recovery, as well as to legalize and build a strong #PotOverPills initiative. My past conflicts with false reports of successful Drug Court programs illustrate this: How individuals guilty of possessing a drug are caged, given felonies, fines, and a probation officer who tells you to get a job or back to jail you go. When you have a record consisting of thirteen felonies for possession and a bachelor’s degree, the bachelor’s degree becomes null and void with a felony. A $100,000 education owed and NO employment opportunity because I was jailed incessantly for my disease. I am one of the few opiate survivors I know from my past life. Most friends are dead or jailed.

Success in recovery leaves you serving pancakes at 28 years old.  This qualifies as “success” to the higher-ups and government administrations. As long as we’re not using drugs and working minimum wage jobs, we are a success? I don’t think so.

That is such a negative view and discouraging standpoint to put to a person who has already overcome adversity beating the addiction, yet our governors, our mayors, and even counselors at rehabs feel that all addicts are all the same. They treat us the same and they all believe that we are only capable of working minimum-wage jobs which will integrate us back as acceptable members of society.

Even the rehab counselors suggest that all addicts are slow, or “behind the curve,” as if our intelligence left us in our disease. Under their regulations, you can’t pay your fines because you are on probation, and you have to leave work early because you have to make a mandatory AA meeting. So your work decides to fire you for meeting your probation obligations, and Probation decides to put you back in correctional facilities for not meeting the probation obligations and working! It is a double-edged sword to say the least!

There are very few options for creating a better community and quality of life for people in recovery in this prison state of New Jersey. Facilities fuel the disease and addiction, surrounded by negativity and NO CORRECTION. I could list many reasons why we need to decriminalize and adjust our nation’s attitude and stigmas towards addiction and opiates, as well as toward cannabis, which genuinely helps the healing process.

Having to share my “life story” is a condition of completing many rehabilitation centers. I’ve had the misfortune of going into rehab over 24 times before I reached age 30. I am not an AA/NA 12-step thumper.   I gave the 12-step programs a try; I even worked for them – but they did not work for me.

 

Though Cannabis remains illegal in New Jersey, Chewey has found the plant to be his only relief and recovery in his opioid addiction. He works hard with the New Jersey cannabis community as a whole, aiming to unite the masses and change the stigma on cannabis and people in recovery.

 Even his mother, a doctor from Columbia University, a strict churchgoing conservative who despised cannabis all her life, changed her mind when she witnessed its medicinal effects on both Brandon and his father. “Now she is adamantly speaking at nursing conventions to also contribute her experience as a parent of an addict watching me go through my pain, not knowing what to do, or how to help in my addiction at my worst.”

Following Tuesday’s New Jersey election and the victory of Democratic candidate Phil Murphy, who has pledged to legalize recreational marijuana in his first 100 days, Chewey says he hopes Mr. Murphy will follow New Jersey Senator Cory Booker’s plans to legalize the plant on a federal level – as well as bring the industry to lower-income communities.  “If we’re going to legalize marijuana, it should be legalized the same way as alcohol. I’m allowed to brew my own alcohol in my garage; why can’t I grow my own medical Cannabis…”

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To learn more about Brandon’s long-term battle with addiction – and how he helped cure himself with Cannabis, stay tuned for our upcoming print edition on Cannabis and more online content of his testimony as well as others struggling in recovery and addiction. 

Brandon Chewey is the founder of Shoreganix – a Jersey Shore Cannabis Collective; visit NewJerseyMarijuana.us for more information.

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