Michael Barber Sr. sat by himself in the east side of downtown’s Pritchard Park on a recent Tuesday afternoon, wondering where he would spend the night.
That’s if his next hit of fentanyl doesn’t kill him.
And sometimes, he said, he hopes it will.
Barber, 37, acknowledged being a daily user of meth and fentanyl, the two drugs that have taken over the drug scene in Asheville, largely replacing marijuana, prescription pain relievers, cocaine, and heroin. They’re more lethal — an average of three people a week are dying of overdoses in Buncombe County — and harder to kick. Hallucinations, mood disturbances, and trouble concentrating can last years after a user quits meth.
The drugs are widely available on the streets of Asheville, and people experiencing homelessness, especially those with histories of trauma and mental illness, are particularly susceptible to addiction.
“Methamphetamine is a way to feel good,” said Dr. Shuchin Shukla of Asheville, a specialist in addiction medicine and an opioid educator at MAHEC, the Mountain Area Health Education Center. “If you’re unhoused, there’s not a lot of opportunities to feel good about life.”
Barber said his drug use goes back years.
“I’ve been doing it for so long,” he said of the meth he smokes or injects. “Everybody around here does it, you know what I mean? And if I have it, I mean, people want to talk to me, and then I have people to talk to. If not, I’m not going to talk to them. I’m just not going to talk to them. I don’t know — that sounds stupid. It sounds really stupid.”
Barber ticks off a litany of his mental health diagnoses, including “paranoid schizophrenic with post traumatic stress disorder, manic depressive,” with some of his trauma related to being shot in the leg with a 12-gauge shotgun in his youth. He’s also got social anxiety, he said, and the meth helps him feel more outgoing.
But he said he hates himself for recently starting to use fentanyl.
“It killed my son’s mother,” he said. “I’ve been clean from heroin for 13 years and I just started back on this. My girlfriend and me, we argue when we do meth, so I was like, ‘Screw it. I’m gonna do fentanyl.’ It was so stupid, man. I do the stupidest shit.”
Milligram per milligram, fentanyl is roughly 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine.
“It’s gonna end up killing me,” Barber said of the fentanyl. “I’ll get clean, and then I’ll just be alone again. I’ve been alone my whole life, man, and my family, they say they’re gonna be there and then I get there and then I’m alone. And that’s what triggers it.”
Drugs, Mental Illness Intertwined
Asheville Watchdog interviewed front-line workers who deal with substance abuse. Drug users in Asheville, they said, including the unhoused and those who congregate downtown, often are survivors of abusive childhoods and horrific traumas, in a society that largely views them as a menace.
Barber, preparing for a cold night and uncertainty about where he would stay, said at least he had alcohol, one of his “go-to’s.” The drugs and alcohol, he said, are a way to try to cope with the difficult past, the mental illness, the loneliness.
“That’s exactly it,” he said. “I mean, ‘cause if I didn’t have it, I’d already have killed myself.”
Originally from Raleigh, Barber said he was given up for adoption early in life, lived with a foster family that didn’t want him, and left school after sixth grade. He’s been on his own since age 15, he said.
He’d spent the previous two nights at the Veterans Restoration Quarters in East Asheville because it was a “Code Purple” (32°F or colder) and the shelter allowed non-veterans to spend the night.
His mother and sister live in the Raleigh area, but they don’t want anything to do with him, he said. Raleigh is also a rougher town for the homeless, he said.
“I’m just scared,” Barber said. “But I do need to get out of here because … I just need to get out of here.”
Normally, Barber said, he prefers “uppers,” the stimulants like meth, but meth keeps him awake for days, and he doesn’t eat. Lately, using fentanyl, he’s been eating more and getting more sleep, he said.
Still, he said, he knows fentanyl is a dead-end street.
“Every time I hit it, I hope it kills me,” he said.
“It’s everywhere in Asheville”
As Asheville Watchdog previously reported in “Down Town,” a series examining the impact of homelessness, a reduced police force, and untreated addiction and mental illness in Asheville, downtown merchants and workers are reporting more erratic behavior and feeling less safe in the city’s core. Much of that behavior is likely fueled by the highly addictive stimulant methamphetamine, often in combination with such other hard drugs as fentanyl.
PREVIOUSLY IN ASHEVILLE WATCHDOG’S DOWN TOWN SERIES:
COMING NEXT: PART 6, The Challenge of Untreated Mental Illness
Homelessness, drugs, untreated mental illness, and related crimes are not new to Asheville or its downtown, the largest commercial center in western North Carolina. And by no means is Asheville unique among American cities in witnessing increases in all of those categories, especially since the pandemic that began in 2020.
But there’s no question that illegal drugs are especially widespread in Asheville.
Asked what percentage of inmates at the Buncombe County Detention Center have drug addiction or mental health issues, Exec. Lt. Alex Allman answered without hesitation.
“I would say 75 percent or higher,” Allman said. “Everybody that walks in the door.”
Wayne Blackwell, a community care minister at Haywood Street Congregation, a ministry for people without housing near downtown Asheville, said he’s seen a major shift in drug use since he first arrived in 2014 seeking help at Haywood. Blackwell said he had been homeless and a heroin addict.
“The meth,” Blackwell said. “It just took a grip on people, especially after the pandemic. It’s here. It’s everywhere in Asheville.”
Haywood holds memorial services for “friends” who have died, including many from overdoses.
“There was a time just last year when we were having a memorial service, I mean, it felt like almost every week,” said Seth Black, a 28-year old pastor at the congregation.
One of those memorialized was Deric Causby, a tile installer who died at Mission Hospital on April 26, 2022 of “complications of methamphetamine toxicity,” according to his death certificate. He was 34.
Melanee Rizk, who manages Haywood’s public messaging, newsletters and social media presence, came to Haywood in May 2022 from Homeward Bound.
“I could not believe how many people on staff here have had to administer Narcan,” she said, referring to the brand name of the medication naloxone, which reverses opioid overdose effects. “That is something that was shocking for me, coming from Homeward Bound, working with folks who are homeless.”
“I’ve got Narcan in my pocket right now,” Black said during an interview with Asheville Watchdog on a recent afternoon. Rizk and Blackwell said they, too, were carrying Narcan.
Meth and Cognitive Impairment
Capt. Joe Silberman, head of the Asheville Police Department’s Criminal Investigations Division, said it’s almost impossible to say whether fentanyl (an opioid) or methamphetamine (a psychostimulant) is the more serious problem in the area.
“Fentanyl is more of a problem for the user — at the user level it’s more likely to kill you unpredictably,” Silberman said. “The meth is more of a problem for the public — it creates a series of (unpredictable) behaviors.”
While both opioids like fentanyl and stimulants like methamphetamine are highly addictive, there is an important distinction between opioid and meth addiction, said Shukla, who is on the board of Homeward Bound. Opioids don’t create a cognitive impairment, he said — that is, they don’t impair the ability to concentrate or make value-based decisions about what’s important to you and how someone can help you.
“With methamphetamine, it very much affects your cognitive abilities,” Shukla said. “It changes the way you’re able to process, your decision making, your judgment, such that it affects (your) behavior in the community.”
Opioid users, if they’re unhoused and in the streets, generally are “pretty chill,” Shukla said. Meth users are another story.
“Someone on meth, or some of these other drugs, but meth in this community, they’re more likely to have bizarre behavior, erratic behavior, violent behavior,” Shukla said.
Repeated use of meth can cause anxiety, paranoia, aggression, hallucinations, and mood disturbances.
If they have homes, drug users act out or pass out “and no one sees them,” Shukla said. “If you’re in the streets, you’re going to attract a lot of attention. You’re going to make people scared.”
Typically, people use meth to “feel better, to have energy,” Shukla said. “A lot of people who are unhoused use it to stay awake, to prevent sexual assault or getting robbed because they’re living out, unsheltered, or with no degree of safety.”
For the unhoused, opportunities to feel good about life are few. Methamphetamine, like a lot of drugs, stimulates the brain’s reward center, Shukla said. Methamphetamine, he said, “is a way to feel good, and everyone wants to feel good.”
Also known as crank, ice, crystal meth, speed and glass, methamphetamine works on the adrenaline system. It causes an increased heart rate, perspiration, and higher body temperature, and an increase in energy. Users are not hungry and sometimes don’t sleep for days.
“You feel euphoria the first time,” Shukla said. “Whatever problems you had feel better … and then when you stop using or it wears off, you feel worse than you were before. And you’re trapped in this cycle, and very quickly it becomes something you’re compulsively going to use.”
Long-term meth use can damage the heart and brain. It can cause heart attacks and strokes, intense itching resulting in skin sores, and extreme tooth decay, known as meth mouth.
“I do think it does injure the brain and nerves and cognitive function in ways that all the other drugs have not, including crack and cocaine,” Shukla said.
Meth users have trouble staying employed and maintaining relationships.
“And so that can make it easier to lose housing, if you have it, or not get housing, if you need it,” Shukla said. “These are folks who are living in our community in ways that everyone can see their lives. I think if we can help the housing situation, it would help the substance use problems of our community.”
Sarah Gayton, Buncombe County Detention Center’s Medication-Assisted Treatment program coordinator, said she recently analyzed jail data and death certificates in Buncombe County from 2015-2021 and found:
- Cases of fentanyl-related overdose deaths in Buncombe County increased 823 percent, to 120 deaths a year in 2021 from 13 in 2015.
- Stimulant-involved deaths increased to 81 deaths a year from four, an increase of 1,925 percent. (Stimulants include methamphetamine, cocaine, crack cocaine, and amphetamines such as medications prescribed for the treatment of ADHD, according to the Centers for Disease Control.)
- Available records for 2022, while not complete, show 57 percent of all overdose deaths were stimulant-involved.
Buncombe County’s overdose statistics have trended upward for the past six years, according to statistics Gayton compiled and recently presented to the Buncombe County Commissioners. Part of that presentation noted, “Overdose deaths are increasing and have reached an all-time high in Buncombe County in recent years.”
From 2015 to 2022, Buncombe County had a total of 983 overdose deaths. Also of note from Gayton’s presentation is that overdose deaths involving combinations of two or more drugs — called “polysubstance drugs,” like a combination of fentanyl and meth, are rapidly increasing. “For example, in 2015, 10 percent of all overdose deaths were stimulant involved; by 2021, 50 percent were,” Gayton’s report noted.
In 2022, Buncombe County had 181 overdose deaths — essentially an average of one death every other day — although officials noted this number likely will increase as death certificates are amended. (The chart below was created before the latest 2022 amendments.)
These are the fatal overdose numbers prior to 2022:
- 2021 – 164
- 2020 – 137
- 2019 – 130
- 2018 – 124
- 2017 – 155
- 2016 – 71
As reported in Part 4 of the Down Town series, Buncombe County has a community paramedic team that responds to overdoses. The community paramedics also distribute Narcan to public libraries, shelters, and other places where drug users are likely to come for assistance.
Without those efforts, county officials said, overdose deaths would be even higher.
Drug Arrests Decline
While it appears that illegal drug use has risen sharply in recent years, Asheville Police Department arrest data show arrest charges related to drugs have actually declined in the past four years.
In 2019, the department filed 727 drug charges related to methamphetamine, marijuana, cocaine and heroin. In 2022, that number was 380.
The department has been operating at 60 percent of its funded positions for two years, and police officials acknowledge that they have prioritized responding to violent crimes, and reduced the number of in-person responses to nonviolent crimes.
Countywide, drug charges more than doubled from 2010 to 2018 and then have declined each year since, according to jail booking data from the Buncombe County Detention Center. (As we reported earlier, the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office is also operating with about 15 percent fewer officers than before 2020.)
Methamphetamine charges in Buncombe County skyrocketed since 2010 but dropped slightly in 2022.
Similarly, heroin charges, which include fentanyl, showed a dramatic increase over the last decade, from 33 in 2011 to 269 in 2021. Law enforcement and drug treatment sources said fentanyl by far became the dominant opioid in the area several years ago, and they see relatively little heroin anymore.
Dr. Shukla of MAHEC has seen the change in the six years he’s been in Asheville.
“When I first got here, prescription opioids and heroin were the issues most prevalent, besides alcohol and maybe marijuana products,” Shukla said, adding that finding heroin or prescription opioids in a drug screen now is very rare. “It’s moved more to fentanyl, fentanyl analogs, methamphetamine.”
Capt. Mike Lamb, a 25-year veteran of the Asheville Police Department, said the type of crime they’re seeing downtown has changed in the last few years, with the behavior becoming “more outrageous.”
“And based on my training and experience, a lot of the folks that are having issues are the ones that are high on meth,” Lamb said. “Meth has really changed the landscape of what we see downtown.”
Meth use, Lamb said, “has really caused a lot of mean and unpredictable behavior, and that’s why you have a lot of business owners that are afraid to confront people anymore.”
Some of the meth coming into the area is higher quality, suggesting it comes from cartels or other organized criminal operations, Lamb said, but they also still see lower-quality homemade methamphetamine, the kind that is “cooked” in local houses and trailers in western North Carolina or surrounding areas.
The Office of National Drug Control Policy has designated Buncombe, Henderson and McDowell counties as “High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas.” More than two-thirds of Americans live in a county designated as HIDTA, according to the website.
The Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office does not have a way to track drug seizures back to their point of origin, spokesman Aaron Sarver said. But “I-40 and I-26 are major transportation corridors that drug traffickers use,” he said.
“Both (of) those interstate highways connect to major ports — Wilmington and Charleston,” Sarver said. “Atlanta is also a regional hub for high-level traffickers who bring up fentanyl and meth.”
Silberman, the Asheville police captain in charge of the Criminal Investigations Division, said the majority of the fentanyl and methamphetamine coming into the area is likely coming from outside the United States.
Precursor drugs, especially for fentanyl, are mostly produced in other countries, including China and India, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, but they’re often shipped to Mexico and either combined into the drugs or moved in the United States to make the finished product, he said.
“Most fentanyl and meth that we actually seize is going to come from a larger lab,” Silberman said. “These little ‘one-pots’ and ‘one-offs,’ the amounts they produce are so small, and it’s an addict producing it (so) that it’s going to be used within an hour or two, tops.”
Meth “one-pots,” sometimes called “shake ‘n bakes,” typically are made by combining precursor chemicals, including pseudoephedrine, in a plastic bottle and shaking them. The bottles are prone to explosions, though, and they create hazardous waste.
DEA: Mexican cartel pipeline to Asheville
Drug production and distribution truly is an international game, and Asheville, like much of the nation, has become a destination for traffickers working out of larger hubs.
“Dangerous drugs such as fentanyl and methamphetamine are transported into the greater Atlanta area through established smuggling routes and further distributed throughout the Southeast region to include Asheville,” Crystal Harper, a spokesperson for the DEA’s Atlanta office, told Asheville Watchdog via email. “The Atlanta metropolitan area serves as a major regional transportation and distribution hub exploited by the Sinaloa cartel and the New Generation Jalisco Cartel (CJNG).”
Those two cartels manufacture fentanyl and methamphetamine in Mexico with precursor chemicals the cartels obtain from China, Harper said.
“Fentanyl arrives in the U.S. in various forms, including pills, powder, and blocks that resemble sidewalk chalk,” Harper said. “Fentanyl has been known to be mixed with other drugs such as methamphetamine, cocaine, and now xylazine (an animal tranquilizer).”
Regardless of where it comes from, meth’s lethal effects are evident nationwide.
In 2021, the latest year for which data are available, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 32,537 people in the United States died from an overdose involving psychostimulants, primarily methamphetamine.
Fentanyl: The deadliest threat
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, which means it is entirely man-made, produced in a laboratory, unlike heroin, an opioid extracted from the poppy flower. Shukla noted that fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin, per milligram. It also “hits” much faster, Shukla said, and that can make it particularly difficult to reach a user who’s overdosed in time.
Fentanyl first showed up in Asheville and Buncombe County in 2015, according to local health officials, and the effects, shown in the chart below, were immediate:
“Fentanyl is the leading cause of overdose deaths,” Sarver said. “Individuals who use stimulants like methamphetamine or cocaine are dying at a significantly increased rate due to the prevalence of fentanyl in the drug supply.”
Shukla noted that as fentanyl has gotten cheaper, people tend to use more of it, leading to a deeper psychological and chemical dependence on the drug.
“And thus it’s harder to treat them because the climb is much higher to get out of than opioid addiction,” he said.
The federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) calls fentanyl “the deadliest drug threat our country has ever faced.” According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 100,000 Americans died from drug poisonings between August 2021 and August 2022, with 66 percent of the deaths involving synthetic opioids, overwhelmingly fentanyl.
“I think that’s part of the the opioid crisis that goes kind of unnoticed — the advent of fentanyl and just the preponderance of fentanyl and how much that’s grown over the years, where you’re getting a lot of cross-contaminated drug supplies that even the user may not be aware of what they’re getting,” said Peyton Daisy O’Conner, executive director at the Steady Collective in Asheville, an Asheville organization which operates a needle exchange program with three distributions a week.
On the rise: Combination drugs
But lately, O’Conner and other local experts said, the rise of “polysubstances” — mixtures of two or more drugs, often unknown to people who buy drugs on the street — has created a much more dangerous landscape for drug users.
“The deaths related to [polysubstance drugs] spiked in the last year, and we’re seeing it across the board,” Meredith Switzer, executive director of All Souls Counseling Service in Asheville, said. “We’re seeing young people who are experimenting — who are having really dire consequences, because they’re using things that they don’t know what’s in them, in the drugs they’re taking.”
Medical experts, those in the treatment field, and needle exchange programs all confirmed that Asheville drug users — knowingly or not — often are combining drugs such as methamphetamine with fentanyl.
The combination of illegal drugs, particular in conjunction with meth, contributes to aggressive behaviors, and more misery for users.
“One of the most interesting things that I’ve seen — and I’ve had the opportunity to discuss this with other harm reduction programs — is we’re no longer seeing just individual substance use,” O’Conner said. “You’re not going out and getting methamphetamines — you’re getting methamphetamines that are mixed. A lot of times, they’re mixed with fentanyl, they can be mixed with xylazine.”
Xylazine: The zombie drug
This week both the U.S. House and Senate introduced bipartisan legislation seeking to classify xylazine, the animal tranquilizer that’s increasingly infiltrating illicit drugs, as a controlled substance.
Called “tranq” on the street, xylazine is a powerful tranquilizer approved for veterinary use in horses and other animals, but not humans. As Asheville Watchdog reported in Part 4 of this series, dealers add it to other drugs including heroin, fentanyl, and cocaine, to increase bulk and prolong the effects of short-acting opioids like fentanyl.
“We’re getting indications that xylazine is being found” here, MAHEC’s Shukla said. “There’s data from UNC showing the xylazine was present in Buncombe County as early as last summer.”
The DEA on March 20 issued a public safety alert about xylazine and the widespread threat of it being mixed with fentanyl.
“Xylazine is making the deadliest drug threat our country has ever faced, fentanyl, even deadlier,” DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said in the release. “DEA has seized xylazine and fentanyl mixtures in 48 of 50 States. The DEA Laboratory System is reporting that in 2022 approximately 23 percent of fentanyl powder and 7 percent of fentanyl pills seized by the DEA contained xylazine.”
While it is a sedative, xylazine isn’t an opioid, so it doesn’t respond to the opioid overdose antidote Narcan. It also has some horrific side effects. Xylazine is associated with severe soft-tissue wounds and necrosis — sometimes described as rotting skin — that can lead to amputation. Users say withdrawal symptoms from tranq are significantly worse than heroin or meth.
Sue Polston, executive director of Sunrise Community for Recovery and Wellness in Asheville, said they recently had a situation where an individual “was acting irrational, erratically — all the things folks are saying is meth — and a drug screen showed only fentanyl, no methamphetamine.
“We would’ve swore this person was using meth based on the behaviors,” Polston said. “So, this shows me that the new drug called tranq is the cause of these behaviors.”
O’Conner said xylazine is “particularly nasty.”
“Xylazine is particularly noxious because it’s, again, something that is put into supplies that I don’t think anybody’s going out there, intentionally looking to purchase it,” O’Conner said. “It’s put in kind of to change the quality of what’s in a particular drug, to make it feel better or different.”
The drug, O’Conner said, creates a sort of “internal chemical burn” that spreads to the skin in the form of blisters, which can then turn into sores and ulcers. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that repeated xylazine use “is associated with skin ulcers, abscesses, and related complications.”
Some dealers have started adding lidocaine, a numbing agent, as well as xylazine, as the latter drug can burn when injected and lidocaine masks that sensation, O’Conner said. The users still get the internal burns that erupt into blisters and open sores at other sites on the body, “and they’re particularly hard to heal,” O’Conner said.
“That’s something that’s really being openly discussed within the harm reduction communities — how to treat those types of wounds, because it’s such a new type of medical issue,” O’Conner said. “And that’s something that we do with Steady Collective is usually when we have our outreach team present, we also have volunteers that provide medical care for folks that don’t have access to it otherwise.”
Xylazine “has been linked to an increasing number of overdose deaths nationwide in the evolving drug addiction and overdose crisis,” NIDA states. “Studies show people exposed to xylazine often knowingly or unknowingly used it in combination with other drugs, particularly illicit fentanyl.”
Harm Reduction Strategy: Needle Exchanges
Needle exchange programs are part of a harm reduction strategy. The idea is to accept that drug users are going to use drugs, so it makes sense to try to reduce the rates of transmissible diseases such as hepatitis C and HIV that can come with drug use and sharing or reusing needles.
“Decades of research have shown that some harm reduction strategies provide significant individual and public health benefits, including preventing deaths from overdoses and preventing transmission of infectious diseases among people who use drugs and the larger community,” the National Institute on Drug Abuse states on its website. “Others reduce emergency department visits and costly healthcare services, while in some cases offering people who use drugs opportunities to connect to substance use treatment, and other healthcare services in settings relatively free of stigma.”
Buncombe County has three needle exchange programs in operation, one run by the Steady Collective. The Buncombe County Department of Health and Human Services runs another, and Western North Carolina AIDS Project, a nonprofit, runs the third.
For 2022, the Steady Collective distributed 405,000 needles, up from 110,000 the year before. The number of returned needles increased 455 percent to 157,000. O’Conner noted that represents only the number of needles returned to outreach sites that have receptacles (Steady Collective services 16 needle receptacles). The collective opened in November of 2015.
O’Conner said it’s “undeniable that we’re seeing an expansion in the opioid crisis,” and the number of needles the organization has distributed backs that up, although O’Conner stressed the organization’s increased funding also has significantly boosted the distribution numbers.
“We simply had the resources to provide more,” O’Conner said.
The Buncombe County Syringe Services Program has also significantly increased needle distribution, from 128,789 in the 2021 fiscal year to 229,104 in the 2022 fiscal year.
Asheville Watchdog could not reach Western North Carolina AIDS Project before deadline to get that organization’s statistics.
Mitch Albers, Harm Reduction Coordinator for Buncombe County Health and Human Services, said the county has boosted community partnerships, as well as outreach and education efforts, since the Syringe Services Program began in 2019, contributing to the increase in needle distributions.
‘A Delicate Dance’
O’Conner acknowledged that organizations like Steady Collective “do a delicate dance,” with some people seeing them as enablers. She stressed that most of those with drug addictions are going to use drugs regardless; they have a real physiological need for the drug, and “the absence of that drug in their system could kill them.”
“We don’t approach our participants from a recovery mindset,” O’Conner said. “I know that can be difficult to understand at times. But really, our primary focus is to take a community of people that are traditionally neglected and judged, and be that first-step interaction with them, so that they have linkages to supports, [so that] they have a steady presence of people that can show community and really provide them with dignity.”
But the needle exchange programs do create controversy, often because of discarded needles left in public areas. Others feel the exchanges enable drug use, which O’Conner challenges, noting that organizations like Steady Collective keep drug users safe by providing clean needles and equipment, not the drugs themselves.
Maj. Kenny Clewis, who heads the Salvation Army operations in Asheville, said the outside areas of their downtown shelter and a nearby church have been “inundated with needles.”
“Each week when they take the needles around, we spend a good part of the day cleaning up needles,” he said.
The West Asheville Exchange group on Facebook also has had posts complaining about needle litter in 2020, including one that read, “Let’s stop with the throwing of needles anywhere we please! It may be normal for you, but it’s dangerous for everyone else to deal with.”
O’Conner, who previously headed the Buncombe County Parks & Recreation department, joined the Steady Collective in January.
“I would say that we’re not operating under the delusion that Asheville (does not have) a needle litter problem — we’re not saying that’s not existing,” O’Conner said. “In fact, I think it’s something that we’re working more and more to figure out how can we be a better community partner in preventing that.”
O’Conner said that since she joined the collective they’ve “kind of reinvigorated the idea of community cleanup days, and really targeting some of those sites where we know it’s particularly problematic.”
One man’s journey to recovery
Much of the drug landscape in Asheville is simply bleak, as are the lives of those in the throes of addiction.
But David Polston’s story holds an ounce or two of hope instead of the white crystalline powder he used to rely on to get by every day. In fact, it was what he lived for — the meth.
But before delving into Polston’s life of using hard drugs — which led to prison time, the loss of custody of his three children and ugly cycles of relapse — it’s important to understand where he came from.
“My father was in prison when I was eight months old, with like a 25-year sentence,” Polston said. “My mother was an addict as well. And then she left me at the neighbor’s when I was three. Then I was raised by the state, off and on, in and out of foster care.”
It didn’t go well. Growing up first in the Atlanta area and then in Cartersville, about 45 miles northwest, Polston had little supervision, and a whole lot of anger. For a while he lived with family on his mother’s side.
“But they didn’t care what I did,” Polston said. “I started doing drugs when I was like 12 years old — marijuana, pain pills, opiates and cocaine.”
He had a brother and sister, and they were split up in the system.
He was in and out of foster care for a while, then went to live with his aunt’s daughter. She was also a drug user, so Polston did whatever he wanted to do, including “a lot of marijuana and pain pills.”
Polston said he got married to his first wife at age 19.
“We were heavy into opiates,” Polston said. “Then I had a son, and a daughter.”
“And we met some people that did methamphetamine,” he said. “Once I tried it, I got so hooked.”
It quickly led to criminal behavior. Polston said he’s been in prison four times, all in North Carolina. A criminal history shows numerous convictions, ranging from larceny and assault to carrying a concealed weapon and possession of drug paraphernalia.
“So, I started doing (stuff) like stealing people’s stuff and stealing from stores and stealing cars and crushing them out at the crusher,” he said. “Just to use that methamphetamines — staying up for weeks at a time. And then that led into charges, so I went to prison. And then I got out and did the same thing again, ripping and running, stealing stuff.”
Prison offered zero rehabilitation.
“You learn how to be even worse,” Polston said. “Basically, you learn all the tricks and all the stuff that people got in trouble for you. You learn all that in the system because that’s all you have time for, is to just tell stories.”
He started out in prison in minimum security but ended up in closed custody where he was in lockdown 23 hours a day.
After his second stint in prison, his wife got in legal trouble and they lost their children to the Department of Social Services. The children are all together and live with a foster family.
“And then that just really set me off to just continue using,” he said. “And then it just numbed you, you know, because the meth puts you in a whole other mindset — you didn’t really care about nothing. You just cared about using.”
“It’s a hard drug to come off of,” he said. “I’ve really struggled coming off of it.”
While using, Polston said, your mind is “just out there,” so it’s hard to remember what all you did.
“And then I just said, ‘I can’t do this no more.’”
‘I can’t do this no more.’
In his case, what led Polston to seek real treatment was getting robbed in Burnsville by people he was using with.
“And then I walked from Burnsville to downtown Asheville,” he said. “And then I was standing in front of St. Joseph (hospital, now a part of Mission), where the brick wall was, and I just had this urge of like, ‘I can’t do this no more, you know?’ ‘Cause I didn’t have any drugs, and I was detoxing and I hadn’t ate for days. I was just at my very bottom. And then I just said, ‘I can’t do this no more.’”
A kind employee told him “off the record” that he needed to say he was harmful to himself, as they couldn’t release him back to the streets then. He was taken to a medical center in Catawba County, where he stayed for about 35 days in rehab.
“I guess it all played out,” he said. “You know, my ‘higher power’ or whatever you want to call it.”
When he got out he met up with a friend who knew Sue Polston, now his wife, and was a house manager at New Life, a recovery center. Polston had no clothes, no money, no identification, nor any other possessions.
At 5 feet 9 inches tall, he weighed 123 pounds. He’s now a muscular 193 pounds.
Polston got into a men’s home where he did chores around the house in lieu of payment. He moved to a “three-quarter house” where he had more freedom. And he began a serious relationship with Sue. Homeward Bound conducted a “rapid rehousing” for him, and paid the first month’s rent and utilities.
He and Sue Polston moved into a house in Enka, and David Polston got a job at Linamar, a truck parts manufacturer, steadily moving up through their ranks. He’s now a level 4 technician at the plant.
David Polston has a high school diploma but no college credits. He’s proud of his turnaround, but it’s a story he’s mostly kept to himself.
“I’ve never told anybody besides Sue,” Polston said of his story.
From euphoria to despair
Polston has a strong internal motivation not to use again: the fear of dying.
“I have the fear of not ever coming back, if I did use,” he said. “It took me like 30 years to get there. I don’t see me ever (using), because I mean, the trauma and the suffering that I had to go through to detox.”
Polston has been clean now for nine years. While he still occasionally struggles with anger issues, Polston said he’s learned some coping techniques, and he’s become a bit of an exercise fanatic.
He said he feels the drug use in his youth stunted his emotional development.
“I just would be normal, or normal and then angry,” he said. “That was all I knew.”
He regularly goes to therapy, but he also finds healing in daily workouts at the gym, he said.
Polston said using meth the first time was euphoric, but it quickly sours as the body can’t go to sleep and the dependence begins.
“You just get that (where) your body needs it, and then you’re gonna do whatever you have to do to continue to use it,” Polston said. “And then it doesn’t matter if it tears your family apart, because you’re going to choose that methamphetamines over anything. And that’s what basically happened with me and my kids.”
Polston is unsure of his children’s ages because he was in the throes of drug addiction or in prison when they were born. He also had a brain aneurysm in 2015 that affected his memory, he said.
Besides his full-time job, Polston also co-owns Thrive Transitional Living, a six-bed house for recovering addicts located near the Candler home he shares with Sue. David Polston leans on his own experiences with drugs, and life, to help those at Thrive.
He also said he wants people to know what’s really driving the drug epidemic in the country, and here in Asheville.
“I think it’s mental health,” Polston said. “I think the underlying issue of people using is a bigger proportion of [people] not getting the help that they need. It’s hard to get help when you don’t have health insurance. They’re not going to say, ‘Open the doors with open arms and come on in.’ I mean, you don’t have no money, you don’t have no service.”
Coming next in Asheville Watchdog’s Down Town series: Part 6, Mental Health
Watchdog data reporter John Maines contributed to this article.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and surrounding communities. John Boyle has been covering western North Carolina since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org . Andrew R. Jones is a Watchdog investigative reporter. Email email@example.com . Sally Kestin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter. Email firstname.lastname@example.org .