Editor’s note: This is part of a series of stories on heroin, with the next installments to be published Sunday and Monday.
Michele Stuart Morgan lost a friend to a heroin overdose in Juneau last summer. She’d seen the friend earlier that day during a city softball league tournament.
“That hit very close to home,” Morgan, 53, said. The friend was 24 years old, the same age as her son.
Six months later another softball player she knew, this one 25 years old, died of the same fate. She used to coach him in soccer and tee-ball. Then another six months passed before the next heroin death, a 27-year-old man whose family Morgan knew.
“No one talked about how these players died,” Morgan said. “It was very hushed and quiet. You heard through the grapevine.”
Morgan’s breaking point was on a Friday in September during the annual Mudball softball tournament in Sitka — she learned teammate Brenyer Haffner, a 26 year old from Juneau, had died of a heroin overdose.
She’s known Haffner since he was a little kid, and they played on the same adult co-ed softball league for the past seven years.
“It was too much,” she said of his death. Morgan said she knew she had to do something about it.
When she returned home to Juneau from Sitka the next Monday, she said she “went a little crazy,” logged onto her computer and ordered a bunch of stickers and magnets that read, “Heroin will kill you and your friends.”
She emailed Juneau’s mayor, Assembly members, the police chief and state legislators, asking what they were doing to address the heroin epidemic.
Then she rallied her friends and teammates.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” she said. “I just knew something had to be done.”
‘STOP HEROIN, START TALKING’
On a recent weekday afternoon, Morgan stood in the dining room of her Douglas home and folded her most recent shipment of T-shirts with friend Taelyn Coffee.
“Zombies have problems but heroin isn’t one of them,” one T-shirt reads. Underneath a picture of a zombie it says in all caps, “JUNEAU – STOP HEROIN – START TALKING.”
“Heroin will kill you and your friends, Please don’t start,” reads a sticker in bright red bold letters on the dining room table, with a skull and crossbones on it. Another sticker has a picture of a pig on it: “Bacon is 100% better for you than heroin.”
“We thought these ones would play better with the kids,” Morgan said of the light-hearted zombie shirt and bacon sticker.
Whether intentional or not, Morgan and her friends have created a grass-roots movement to help combat heroin in Juneau. The group is called “Juneau — Stop Heroin, Start Talking,” dedicated to bringing awareness of heroin addiction in the capital city.
“We’re a troop,” she said. “This troop, we want to bring awareness and make some changes so this doesn’t continue to happen to our kids.”
Since forming in late September, the group has launched a public awareness campaign by handing out anti-heroin stickers, magnets and bracelets for free, and selling T-shirts for a $10 donation.
Morgan invested $1,000 of her own money to print the materials, with the help of Alaska Outdoor Warehouse & Embroidery, which gave her a discount for the T-shirts. All donations go back into the program. She said she’s already recouped about $600 by selling the T-shirts. The group wants to team up with an established community nonprofit in the near future.
The group has received support from the local business community, like Bullwinkle’s Pizza Parlor, which recently ordered 10,000 stickers to put on their delivery boxes.
The Juneau Police Department, which itself launched a series of educational public service announcements about heroin last month, is also on board. JPD says six people have died of a heroin overdose in Juneau since February.
“I think it’s awesome,” Lt. Kris Sell said of the group, “because it’s going to take everybody. This can’t be just a police department issue.”
The group is also working with state legislators on supporting a bill related to heroin overdoses. (For more on this story, see the Empire’s Sunday edition.)
‘IT COULD BE ANYONE’
Morgan’s group has attracted throngs of supporters in the community who want people to realize how pervasive heroin is in Juneau and how anyone can become addicted.
Morgan estimates the group has about five core members and at least 30 committed supporters. Some have lost family members to heroin and others have lost friends.
Myriah Shakespeare said she was blinded by Brenyer Haffner’s death in September. While Haffner’s family was aware of his dug addiction (which they have been open about, sharing his story with the media in hopes of preventing similar deaths), many of his friends were not.
“I didn’t believe it when they told me,” Shakespeare said, tearing up in an interview. “I said, ‘Not Brenyer, not Brenyer.’”
Like Michele Morgan, Shakespeare played softball with Haffner for years and had no idea he was using drugs.
“People are assuming that these people that are dying are drug addicts, and they’re drug dealers, and they’re just the scum of society,” Shakespeare added. “They don’t understand that it could be anyone.”
That observation is a nod to what the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has been saying about the heroin epidemic across the nation: Heroin use is no longer just for so-called “junkies,” an outdated stereotype from generations past. Heroin use has increased among affluent young men and women, particularly those who were hooked on the overprescribed opiate painkiller OxyContin.
As prices for OxyContin soared and the pills were reformulated by pharmaceutical companies in 2010 to make them harder to abuse, heroin emerged as a cheaper and more available alternative. The rate of heroin-related overdose deaths nearly quadrupled in the United States between 2002 and 2013, according to the CDC. More than 8,200 people died in 2013.
Taelyn Coffee, 26, recalls not being able to go a day without heroin for about a year. She only drank alcohol once in high school, never smoked marijuana and was generally considered a “good girl” who came from a loving family, she said.
“I started with Oxy, that was the big thing at the time,” she said. “I had a boyfriend who was dealing and it spiraled from there.”
Coffee was able to quit heroin on her own about three or four years ago. Not many people know about her drug use — she said she hid her addiction from everyone.
“I’m a survivor. I say survivor because I could have very well been in this mix,” she said, referring to the recent cluster of Juneau residents who have died of an overdose.
Now, Coffee is outspoken about her addiction and recovery, and she’s on a mission as a member of Juneau — Stop Heroin, Start Talking. She wants people to know how easy it is to score heroin and how prevalent the drug is, even in small-town Juneau.
‘SHINE A LIGHT’ ON HEROIN
Morgan said she hopes her group can help educate people about drug use and change the stigma surrounding it. The first step to change, she said, is to get people talking.
“These kids were on our softball teams, they were our teammates, our friends, our brothers,” she said. “And then one day, someone tells you they OD’d.”
“We have to shine a light on this,” she continued. “We can’t brush it under the rug.”
This month, the group is hosting a gourmet hot dog bar/potluck and karaoke night at Rockwell on Saturday, Nov. 14, from 5:30-8 p.m. They’ll be handing out education material, promoting Juneau — Stop Heroin, Start Talking, and giving out their bracelets.
“A small bracelet and no judgment helps open up a conversation,” she said.