The opioid crisis is a public health issue that touches the lives of an immeasurable number of people in North America. Recently, I had the chance to attend the Gathering of the Juggalos with the vigilante drug-testing company Bunk Police in a state with one of the highest overdose death rates in the country, Ohio. At the Gathering, we found that the majority of attendees’ substances tested by the company came up as what they were presented as—with a notable exception of a fentanyl-laced cocaine finding on the last day of the festival.
While shadowing Bunk Police, I had the chance to chat with some juggalos about how they’ve been personally affected by the opioid crisis. It’s important to note that opioids are a divisive issue in this community just as in others, carrying a heavy stigma. I even witnessed one juggalo exclaim, “Let them die!” while approaching Bunk Police’s booth, referring to people who use drugs and overdose.
Amongst the noise of stigma, though, it’s important to listen to the voices of people who’ve been affected. Many juggalos are adamantly anti-heroin, but I also found many people who had direct experiences with opioids—from personal use, to losing loved ones, to growing up in areas hit hard by the crisis. Below, you’ll find excerpts from just a handful of these conversations:
In This Together
Terry and Wendy celebrated their one-year wedding anniversary at this year’s Gathering. They live in a little coast town in Maine and drove over 15 hours to come to the festival.
“Maine has been hit really, really bad,” Terry, 33, told me. He said he’s been on and off suboxone for a decade and has struggled with relapses. “Needle exchanges are a godsend—we certainly need to have more of those, and I would advocate for safe-injection sites too.” Terry and Wendy said that they think harm reduction attention needs to be more focused on suburban areas and not just urban centers.
Terry was 12 when he first tried opioids in the form of Vicodin; he quickly transitioned to using heroin. “Oh yeah, I’ve lost friends, plenty of them… We lost at least four in the time Wendy and I have been together, over the last three years.”
“We actually found out two years ago Thanksgiving morning, I saw a Facebook post about one of our good friends,” Wendy, 29, said. “We literally saw him the day before… He had lost his mom a couple months before and was having a really hard time with it. We didn’t even know he was doing that much.”
Terry recalled a time he relapsed and experienced an overdose. “I’m lucky I walked in the room… He was all blue,” Wendy said. “The only thing that saved my life, other than her picking my head up, was me being on suboxone,” Terry explained.
Wendy said Terry being on suboxone is a relief since it can dull the effects of opioids if he relapses again. “I’m already afraid I’m going to lose him, so it gives me peace of mind,” she said.
A Dealer’s Perspective
If you’ve never been an addict, you really don’t know. I’ve been an opiate user for at least ten years of my life. When I was younger, I broke my arm in three places, and they gave me painkillers. Here I am 16 years old with a script of painkillers for three months, hydrocodone. By the time I got done, your body gets used to something like that. A year later, I messed up my knee, I got more painkillers. I can’t blame that for why I got on it, but it did introduce me.
I lost two friends within 30 days once, almost two years ago. It was heroin. My one buddy, they thought he was asleep. By the time they figured it out, it was too late. He was braindead by the time they brought him back. Another girl, they just left her at a house. They thought she was just really high and nodding out, not that she was dead. They probably could’ve saved her.
I think it’s awesome Bunk Police is here. Most of these people aren’t regular users. If this kind of thing was around more, there’d be less accidents and less people getting ripped off of their money. I’m not selling here, but I do back home, mainly opiates. I was looking into getting test kits online. With Bunk Police here, he helped me figure it out.
I want to make sure my drugs are what I think they are. I don’t really want to get fentanyl, and if I do, I want to know so I can warn people. It’s not all about making money. I’m not trying to kill people.
In some places, bigger cities, I get that people don’t care and are just there for the dollar. Honestly, if I’m trying to sell to you, I’m not trying to kill you. I want you to come back to me. That’s why I want to test my product, so I know. I want to know so I can warn people to be careful with it. — Snoopy*, 32
Crossing a Threshold, Loss, and Selling
I’ve lost countless people, probably 40 or 50. It’s become so widespread in Kentucky. It’s everywhere. In the last seven days, I lost someone to an OD. They thought it was Percocet, but it was a fake pill. There’s a lot of people who are real anti-heroin. I was for the longest time. But even with a $400-$600 a day pill habit, I still thought, Oh, well at least I haven’t crossed that threshold. I’ve now become a heroin user. There’s people who won’t, and they think it’s a pill and you know what it is each time. It’s not the same. There’s fakes that are so good you can’t tell them from a real one.
The first time I tried opioids, I had a prescription. I had major surgery as a kid. My mom didn’t want me to take them—we had neighbours who were already real bad on them. I dabbled with them one time in eighth grade. I got real sick and was against them. I tried them again at 21, and I was hooked. I never took a day off until I was in the suboxone clinic three years ago. I got kicked out of there and shortly after fell right back on the road again.
I don’t want to be doing this. I’m not having fun. But I literally can’t function without it: I puke, I shake. Until you’re there, you won’t understand. When I lose a friend, I feel guilty. Like what could you have done to help? But at the same time, I can’t even fucking help myself. What hurts me most is not how much I’ve damaged my own life, it’s my family’s life.
I sell pills to support my addiction. I was drawn to opioids because of depression. At the beginning, you’ll be fucked up all day. I was happy, relaxed. I remember the first day I woke up withdrawing. I was at my buddy’s house and he said, “I told you. There’s no going back now.”
There was a good while when I was selling so many pills, I was doing three, four grams of heroin a day. I could still help my mom out with bills, she was real tight on money. Yeah, I was spending $400 or $500 a day on drugs, but I was making like $700 a day. One of my biggest fears is if I sold something to someone and something horrible happened. That would hurt me. I’ve told people that I don’t want them to feel responsible if they sell me something that takes my life. That’s my own fault. But if the roles were reversed, I’d feel horrible. I’d rather it be me than someone else. I’ve lost so many people. You’re playing a numbers game. Someday it is going to be me.
I looked down on it too before I was here. It’s a lack of understanding. No one made you stick a needle in your arm or put a straw in your nose. But at the same time, when you’re so looked down upon, you don’t want to ask for help when it gets to that point. And it’s too late anyway sometimes. —Ken*, 28
A Young Ohioan’s POV
I’m from near Cincinnati. My town has been affected very badly. There’s constant overdoses. Me and my grandpa were just driving down the street, and literally there was somebody overdosing—he’s grabbing his friend, they’re trying to get out of there. You always have people coming up to you asking you for heroin, even if you don’t do heroin. The worst part is it’s affecting small communities more than people really know, and that really destroys families.
I’ve known a lot of people who’ve died. My friend Scott, RIP, was 26. He was using heroin, carfentanil. That was about a year ago. My dad was hooked on heroin as well, so pretty much my whole childhood I was affected by that.
Doctors over-prescribing has been a problem. I was once given a prescription for Percocets just for slamming my finger in a door. They just gave it to me like it was nothing.
That viral photo of a couple overdosing in a car with a kid in the backseat happened about 15 miles from where I live. I feel like we need more community outreach, more willingness for people to participate in programs to get them clean, a lot more AA and NA meetings in small communities.
Some people use as early as teenage years, 13, and several years later they’re overdosing. You see the behaviours of people very clearly if you’re around it enough; you can tell when someone starts changing. Some people go through it where they’ll keep it hidden, which was the case with one of my exes. I didn’t know what to think about that. It just hurts you really bad. The important thing is knowing people can get help. People use these drugs to not feel anything, no pain… Once someone gets into opioids, it really takes ahold of them. I think there needs to be more pro-cannabis programs. Of course there’s always going to be people who do heroin, but at least let them know they can get help in whatever way, even if it’s just getting fresh needles.
Especially in Ohio and in my community, there’s fake Xanax with fentanyl. That’s a problem because doctors are prescribing benzos less, and those are highly addictive as well. Someone might go to street benzos if they can’t get a prescription. And that could be that one time they get a Xanax with fentanyl in it, and that could kill them. Lil Peep, he lost his life because of fentanyl bars. He was my age. It’s really sad because you never know. It could be the person sitting next to you. —Austin, 21
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.