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Opioids Are Personal For One Former Prosecutor

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Even those who've spent their careers in law enforcement fighting drug crimes aren't immune from the opioid epidemic. While Julie Garcia, former prosecutor in upstate New York, was handling drug cases, her own family was being ravaged by addiction to prescription painkillers. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann has this profile.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Julie Garcia spent much of her career as a prosecutor working in three county district attorney offices across New York state, serving as head DA for a time here in Essex County. She says her attitude toward drugs was pretty typical, tough on crime, until opioids hit her own hometown in the early 2000s. She got a call one day from her mom and her sister, who admitted they were using opioids, getting high together. They told her they were scared.

JULIE GARCIA: That was one of the worst moments of my entire life. I was just a new prosecutor working at the Suffolk County DA's office, and I remember being outside talking to my mom and my sister and, like, what do we do?

MANN: Garcia started living what she describes as a double life, working days as a prosecutor, then driving home to Port Henry, N.Y., the small mining town where she grew up. She found her mom, Sue, and her sister, Lani, were buying OxyContin and other prescription painkillers from neighbors.

GARCIA: Which was the most disturbing part for me was people getting other people addicted intentionally and then raising the price of the pills - and people I know. And I knew some of the people that were selling to my mom and to my sister.

MANN: Garcia says her view of drug crime began to evolve as her mom and sister struggled through relapse after relapse. They didn't look to her like criminals. Neither did the drug dealers in Port Henry, who seemed just as desperate and addicted.

GARCIA: When I was the DA, you would always try to figure out a way to stop those people. But then again, there's another layer to that. Like, why are they doing that? What's their backstory?

MANN: Garcia drives me through her old neighborhood in the rocky hills above Port Henry. She now believes the opioid epidemic has as much to do with economics and poverty as crime. The stores are closed here, many of the houses boarded up. The local iron mines shut down for good in the 1970s.

GARCIA: This was such a different place when I was growing up here, and there were kids everywhere.

MANN: Garcia says as a prosecutor, she got pushback when she first started linking addiction to things like poverty and the lack of health care. She was told to leave that stuff to the social workers, but she was seeing firsthand how vulnerable people are when there aren't jobs, how hard it is to beat opioids once people are hooked.

GARCIA: You think about it all the time. I thought about it when I was a new prosecutor in Suffolk County - that I would get the call that mom would be dead, and then your worst fears are realized. When my sister called me and said mom died, I fell to my knees and just wept because it's that moment where everything that you were ever scared of happened.

MANN: Her mom, Sue, was 58 years old when she died of a heart complication linked to long-term opioid addiction. Less than a year later, she got another call, this time from the local sheriff.

GARCIA: You need to come over to your sister's right now. And I went over, and they said she's gone. Everyone was screaming. And that's the part of addiction, I think, that there's a horrible part to it - like, that chaos. I'll never forget, like, the people screaming and crying.

MANN: Lani Garcia died after a fentanyl overdose. She left three young daughters.

Julie Garcia drives me to the cemetery above Port Henry where her mom and her sister are buried. We walk for a while among the graves. It's a beautiful spot with a view of the Adirondack Mountains. Garcia says she's still tangled up in this epidemic. She ran unsuccessfully for a judge's seat this year talking openly about her family's struggles. In her private law practice, a lot of her clients are addicted, their lives unraveling because of opioids or alcohol or meth.

Some prosecutors have changed tactics, diverting people arrested for drug crimes away from prison into rehab and therapy. Garcia thinks that's progress, but she says the stigma remains. A lot of people still struggle with this illness in secret, like her mom and sister.

GARCIA: I think it's unusual to have people say, yes, I am, I'm using. And it's so hard, and it's so difficult. And that's really where we need to get people to say that, to say it, to say, I need help; I can't do this by myself. Because, honestly, they shouldn't have to do it by themselves.

MANN: Across the U.S., more than 130 people still die every day from opioid overdoses.

Brian Mann, NPR News, Port Henry, N.Y. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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