Special Report: Opioid Epidemic Looms Over Valley Communities

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HARLINGEN – A nationwide epidemic is now making its way into the Rio Grande Valley – opioid addiction. However, there is an organization looking to end the overdose deaths caused by this deadly epidemic.

CHANNEL 5 NEWS spoke with a woman who fell victim to addiction and the director of the Valley Aids Council to learn what’s being done to save lives.

The Center for Disease Control tells us the number of deaths from opioid in the state of Texas increased by 330 from the years 2014 to 2016, marking 2,832 opioid deaths in 2016. That number is expected to continue growing.

“Literally, I have false teeth. I’ve had them since I was 17 years old because I knew I could get Vicodin and I didn’t care. Pull them, pull them. It hurts. I would find some reason to get my teeth pulled so I could get Vicodin,” said a 56-year-old woman.

For this report, we’ll call this woman “Mary.” She’s not shy about calling herself an addict. She tells us her journey with how her opioid addiction began at a very young age after a horrific incident.

“Well, when I was eight years old I got shot and I was on painkillers all my life. Painkillers, painkillers, painkillers,” said Mary.

Mary tells us by the age of 17 she was taking 10 Vicodin tablets at a time. Trips to the hospital for overdoses and medication poisoning were common.

She says she left Chicago and moved to Brownsville in the year 2000. Within two weeks she was introduced to a drug known on the streets as “Mexican Mocos,” also known as black tar heroin.

“Immediately. Immediately, no pill was going to work again. I haven’t popped pills since,” Mary said.

She explains black tar heroin became more than just her new drug of choice. It became her world. Chasing that $10 high was her only concern. She says in less than a month everything changed.

“And then I hit rock bottom quick, like quick fast and in a hurry. Overnight, it seemed like I was in the streets hustling doing things I never thought I would do,” she explained. “A lot of it was mainly prostitution and that’s really your morals. You see them go out the window real quick.”

Mary bears the scars of her addiction. Collapsed veins and needle marks run across her entire body. She isn’t alone in this uphill battle with opioid addiction.

She tells us the number of new opioid addicts is growing in the Valley. She’s seen the growth with her own eyes.

She says often they’re middle-class teenagers sneaking into their parent’s medication who are getting hooked. She begs parents to pay closer attention.

“You can go in and get a dollar into the dollar store and get pills that look like Vicodin, take your Vicodin and drop the dollar pills in there and you and I'm not going to sit there and look ‘is this a Vicodin 10 over 325’ or … I’m just saying you’re not going to look if they look like them. And it ain’t nothing but a dollar aspirin,” Mary said.

She advises parents to take a close look. She’s seen many of those new users and longtime friends overdose, which can lead to death.

Oscar Lopez is the director of education at the Valley Aids Council. He says it’s clear the heroin and opioid epidemic is on the rise in the Valley community.

“In the state of Texas, it is the number one killer of anyone 50 years of age or younger. So heroin is very prevalent,” said Lopez.

Lopez explains common opioids include prescription painkillers such as Vicodin, morphine and Fentanyl among others.

“What we have seen is an increase in the number of people who have access to painkillers. We’ve seen those painkillers now being sold on the streets and when the painkillers run out, people do turn to heroin,” he said.

Lopez explains 80 percent of opioid users will relapse within a year after becoming sober. He says to combat the deaths caused by this epidemic VAC has begun providing free Narcan kits. Narcan is a medication that can prevent death during an overdose.

“This basically will counter the effects of the opioid. It goes into the nasal cavity and immediately gets absorbed by the body and will help wake up somebody who is overdosing,” said Lopez.

Lopez tells CHANNEL 5 NEWS a Narcan kit cost anywhere from $175 for the spray and up to $1,000 for an injection.

VAC is providing them to anyone who is at risk or knows someone who is at risk of an opioid overdose.

To prevent a loved one from being affected by this epidemic, Lopez suggests, “As parents and grandparents, if we locked up out pain medication we would greatly reduce the number of teens that are experimenting with painkillers that are opioids.”

Mary says she’s picked up her Narcan kit. She’s even passing out kits to fellow users in hopes she can save lives.

As for her own battle with addiction, Mary says, “To me, I feel like this is my last chance. I’m not there yet, all the way because I used three days ago, but I’m one day at a time. That’s all I can do, is one day at a time.”

Now after an 18 year battle with black tar heroin, the 56-year-old says she’s reentered a methadone treatment facility to help end her opioid use.

Lopez tells us VAC has partnered with both the San Benito and Port Isabel police departments in the battle against the opioid epidemic. VAC has provided Narcan kits and training to their officers.

The Port Isabel Police Department tells us a month after receiving the Narcan kits, officers were able to save the life of a man they encountered in the middle of an overdose.

Lopez says VAC is willing to partner with any police department in the Rio Grande Valley.

If you or a loved one are in need of help or Narcan kits, you can visit or call one of the Valley Aids Council locations.

  • 300 South 2nd Street in McAllen 956-668-1155
  • 2306 Camelot Plaza Circle in Harlingen 956-428-2653
  • 857 East Washington Street in Brownsville 956-541-2600
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