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Fighting the habit: crack and cocaine

by Amy Kingsley

Hers is a small house on a busy street crammed with Xerox copies and troubles. It’s a single story structure with a wooden ramp leading from the gravel drive to the front door. Gnarled trees frame a picture window and obscure a peaked, shingled roof. This is Susan Mills’ home. The one she shares with her mother, son and at least three indoor cats. Last week, she sat inside the house, on her couch, and leafed through a pile of papers. “I’m looking for the letter from the guy about sentencing,” she said. “This is an article in the paper from last August. And this is a trigger list my son wrote.” Most public officials and journalists in town are familiar with Mills – she’s earned a reputation as a crusader against the scourge of crack cocaine. A printout of Greensboro City Council members peaked out from under the pile of electronic correspondence, media clippings, academic papers, legal documents and treatment brochures. “I spent thirty dollars at Home Depot,” she said. The money paid for a frenzy of copying to make information packets for the League of Women Voters. The group has waded into the debate over whether to expand the house arrest program, and Mills is gathering information she hopes will convince them to oppose it. Taking crack addicts out of jails would only allow them to use more and commit more crimes, she said. “Everything is related to crack,” she said. “Not just drugs, but crack.” This is a refrain for Mills, who stumbled into her advocacy role when a loved one became dependent on crack. It is usually followed by, “this isn’t just my thing.” Mills didn’t want to specify her relationship with the addict. She will tell you that crack is the root of almost all that ails Guilford County. Go to an HIV clinic, she said, and ask how many patients are addicts. Spend a day in a courtroom and see the way drugs clog up the judicial system. You know that motel murder? She waved a newspaper clipping. That was crack. “Nobody loans their car to the dealer for powder cocaine,” she said. “Only crack addicts do that.” Mills has her partisans. Brenda Smith-Williams, director of DREAMS Drug Treatment Facility, said the community should be taking a harder look at the drug. “Look at all the systems it has interrupted,” Smith-Williams said. “It’s interrupted the court system, the healthcare system, the education system and the family system.” Smith-Williams receives an average of 25 phone calls a day on a number she set up as a crack hotline. DREAMS consists of eight residential beds and daily outpatient activities. It opened on April 15, and Smith-Williams estimated that only two of the 40-odd patients she has treated abused something other than crack. Mills and Smith-Williams, despite their politicking, have run up against establishment resistance. When Mills served on the Substance Abuse Task Force, she lobbied to put crack at the top of the agenda. Another member, Sarah Graham, protested on the grounds that alcohol abuse was more widespread, dedicating extra resources to crack meant there would be fewer for other drugs. Mills and Smith-Williams see something more sinister. Crack cocaine is associated with minorities and the poor, Smith-Williams said. And the success rates for treatment – which a lot of government funding is based on – is bad. Smith-Williams first encountered crack during her first drug-treatment job, when she worked as an interventionist for pregnant women addicted to drugs and alcohol. That was in the late 1980s, around the same time the term “crack baby” was popularized. Both women will tell you crack is different, that its addictive qualities cause it to fuel all sorts of social ills. “With crack, little things that would not normally be looked upon as triggers become them,” Smith-Williams said. “For an alcoholic, a twenty-dollar bill is a twenty-dollar bill is a twenty-dollar bill. If I’m a crack addict, twenty dollars represents what I need to buy crack.” Some crack users smoke using crushed cans, so the sight of a can on the ground can trigger a craving, Mill said. Another thing about crack that makes it so hard to beat is that it’s tough to find the money for inpatient treatment. Addicts of heroin and alcohol suffer physical withdrawal that requires medical supervision. Medicaid and insurance funds will pay for the bed since it’s a medical necessity. It’s difficult to withdraw from cocaine, treatment professionals say, but it won’t kill you. Even so, crack addicts need residential treatment just to separate themselves from a world of triggers. “To think about treating a crack addicted person as an outpatient…” Smith-Williams said. “Knowing that all those everyday things are triggers. The first thing you need to do is separate or segregate the person from the triggers.” When Mills ran a support group in Florida for families of crack addicts, she said she heard the same stories over and over again. Addicts couldn’t stay clean, and they couldn’t find decent inpatient treatment. One girl who hadn’t used for seven years had to stop her anti-drug activism because she started dreaming about smoking, Mills said. “You don’t have warning signs that a crack user is going to relapse like you do with an alcoholic,” she said. “With a crack user, they can be walking to a meeting with their parole officer, but if they see something that reminds them of using, they’ll smoke crack.” What addicts need, she said, is a program like Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abuse, or TROSA, a two-year inpatient program in Durham for people with a history of substance abuse. Smith-William’s DREAMS program, which provides 30 days of residential care, is a start, she said. Mills first met Smith-Williams when the latter worked as a counselor at Caring Services in High Point. Smith-Williams treated Mills’ loved one, who said she was the best counselor he’d ever had. Evelyn Taylor is another of Mills’ allies. Mills had just moved back to Greensboro from Florida when she met Taylor, who was battling drug dealers at Morningside Homes. In Florida, Mills’ crusade against crack rubbed some drug dealers the wrong way; one jumped on the hood of her car in displeasure. She saw a kindred spirit in Taylor. “There was a tree on the corner we called the ‘drug tree,'” Taylor said. “Teenagers started doing marijuana there in the late seventies. In the eighties it moved to crack.” Now she lives far from her old neighborhood, in a ritzier side of town. The drugs aren’t out in the open over there, but she’s sure there are addicts behind closed doors. “It’s not just young people that are using but old people too,” Taylor said. “We got old men in their forties and fifties using crack.” Mills’ loved one was clean for several months before he relapsed the last time. He went to the Coliseum Inn, she said, used crack, sold his car and walked to Chapel Hill. She still talks to him and makes sure he takes an herbal supplement for his obsessive-compulsive disorder. But she doesn’t know if he’ll ever come back to Greensboro or how long he’ll stay clean. So she stays in Greensboro and dispatches letters to the editor. After all, there’s only so much she can do.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com.

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