By John Jeter
Christmas Eve. Landon McNair was back home in Charlotte for six days from Greenville, including the family’s weekend ski trip to the North Carolina mountains. He liked to sleep in. Around 11 that morning, his father went upstairs to check on him.
“I opened the door to a horrific sight,” Steve McNair says, sitting across from his brother, Larry, at a local oyster bar, where he tears off a paper towel to wipe his eyes. “I found him dead on the floor, on his back, in a contorted position with his eyes open.
Landon McNair, an Eagle Scout and star tennis player at Porter Ridge High School near Matthews, N.C., was 25 years old when he overdosed on opioids. He joined more than 70,000 other Americans who lost their lives to drug overdose, just 10,000 fewer deaths than from guns and car wrecks combined.
“He was gone. It was a pill. Street drug. It was disguised as a pharmaceutical drug.”
When he was 19, Landon was playing basketball in the family’s driveway and came down on a long screw. The gash in his left leg sent him to the hospital, where he was prescribed an opiate for pain. Soon, his prescription ran out. Not long afterward, he turned to the streets.
“What it does to emotional and physical pain is beyond compare,” Rich Jones, 50, says of the pharmaceutical. “Then what happens, when it gets to next-level diabolical, you get sick when you don’t have them” — like the “flu times 100.”
“The only way I can describe it to you is like worms crawling underneath your skin, and you know if you get a hold of one of these pills, that’s gone.”
In 2013, Jones, himself a recovering alcohol and opioid abuser, opened FAVOR Greenville, where he’s CEO/COO of the recovery center whose 29 staffers treat some 7,000 new patients a year, with 40,000 on its rolls, 10,000 of them family members.
Landon never made it to FAVOR, or Faces and Voices of Recovery, though he had been in and out of rehab. His last was a “sober-living environment,” where residents must pass drug screenings and hold down jobs. Landon seemed to be thriving in Greenville, working for his father and uncle, Larry, in their real estate company.
Then he came home for Christmas, fell back in with the old crowd and into pills and heroin. Steve says they found needles. “We gave him a little too much freedom.”
Blame for the crisis largely falls to OxyContin. Released in 1996, the opioid’s “one of the most successful pharmaceuticals of all time with worldwide sales totaling $35 billion,” says a February 2018 paper from three University of Notre Dame researchers.
Before that, in the decade after 1991, opioid prescriptions tripled to 211 million.
In 2017, nearly 400,000 opioid prescriptions were dispensed in Greenville County, whose population barely tops 500,000. The same year here saw more than 130 deaths involving opioids, heroin, and fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times stronger than heroin, according to the paper and to statistics from the state’s justplainkillers.com.
“Those are monster drugs that are being put into everything,” Jones says. “If you have a bag of heroin and you want to make it last longer, you get fentanyl, which is very cheap.”
A source familiar with the “dark web,” and who requested anonymity for obvious reasons, says, “High-quality heroin has gone through the floor to fill in the gaps left by Oxy. I think it’s less than $10 an armful these days. Even trash heroin is being kept in business by the massive amount of fentanyl analogs that are coming in from clandestine labs in China.”
One of those is carfentanyl, 100 times stronger than fentanyl. “Carfent,” he says, “is so dangerous because you basically OD on something the size of like two sand grains.”
“If I knew how to solve this crisis, our conversation would not be being held over the phone like this; we’d be sitting in some government office where we could hopefully execute that solution,” says Dr. Joshua Smith at Interventional Pain Management Associates in Greenville. “There’s no big solution, there’s no great one. It’s a lot of things.”
While physicians increasingly understand opioids’ super-addictive properties — contrary to Big Pharma’s insistence otherwise 15 years ago, hence the raft of recent lawsuits — educating health care professionals and the public about addiction itself is crucial, he says.
Enter Shay Houser, 50, one of Greenville’s best-known entrepreneurs, with youturn.net, his fifth startup.
The weekend after Thanksgiving 2017, he sat in a hotel room with a loaded .38 and “as much chemicals and booze as I could put into my body.”
The following year, he launched youturn.net, an online platform with nearly 150 videos in three educational modules primarily designed for family members and employers.
Because “25% of the workforce has a spouse or child that’s struggling with addiction,” he says, he started youturn last year as a subscription service to teach employers how to identify substance abusers.
Elizabeth McKissick, 49, in recovery now for 13 years, co-chaired with her husband, James, the $1.5 million fundraising campaign that opened FAVOR.
Jones, a youturn co-founder, serves as chief strategy officer. McKissick is vice president of membership experience.
“With the opioid crisis going on, people are dying, kids are dying, something different has to be done,” she says. “The old model — wait until the addict hits bottom, wait until the you-know-what hits the fan and then deal with it in the office or when you’ve been told someone dies and then take notice — why not educate everybody about addiction and substance-use disorder and about what recovery is?”
As Larry McNair says of his nephew, “He didn’t go to the hospital so he could get hooked on drugs, he went to the hospital because he needed to get his leg sewed up. You’re not going to some crack house and risking your life to get it when you first get it, you’re going to a doctor.”