Fayette County

How a Kentucky heroin addict is helping science fight the opioid epidemic

Dustin Cinnamon on Tuesday, March 21, 2017.
Dustin Cinnamon on Tuesday, March 21, 2017.

For the first time in Dustin Cinnamon’s life, his heroin addiction is doing some good during a time when drug overdoses have skyrocketed in the United States.

Cinnamon, 30, who had been convicted of evidence tampering, exchanged a dank jail cell where he recently spent five months for a private hospital room, where he participated in a University of Kentucky study researching initiatives that are crucial in solving problems related to the nation’s opioid and heroin epidemic.

Cinnamon earned roughly $5,400 for spending six weeks in a study conducted by UK’s Michelle Lofwall and Sharon Walsh. Each day, he agreed to swallow a placebo or a non-FDA-approved pill used in the treatment of chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, according to documents he mailed to the Herald-Leader.

After taking the pill, he participated in one of three scenarios: a test session, a sample session or nothing at all. On test session days, he was asked to snort a placebo or an opioid — which could’ve been oxycodone, morphine, or hydrocodone — and place his hand in room-temperature water and then in cold water while his heart rate, blood pressure, temperature and pupil diameter were measured. Sample session days involved him choosing to “work” (pressing a button a specified number of times) for extra pay or to get the opioid (or placebo) he had received the day before.

Although confidentiality rules forbade Lofwall and Walsh from answering questions about the study or its participants, the National Institute of Drug Abuse said the analysis is important. The study has received $568,000 from the institute since June 2016.

“The compound may reduce the need for opioids and the risk of developing opioid use disorders,” said Shirley Simson of the drug abuse institute.

More than half a million people died between 2000 and 2015 from opioid use. In 2017 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared the national opioid crisis a public health emergency.

UK spokesman Jay Blanton said the study is one of many clinical trials at UK testing the safety, efficacy and viability of potential therapies for treating substance-use disorders. In 2016, UK’s Center on Drug and Alcohol Research received $9.6 million for projects dedicated to substance abuse and addiction. Since 2010, the National Institute of Drug Abuse has awarded more than $92 million to UK investigators studying substance use disorders.

UK’s Center on Drug and Alcohol Research has collected an average of $9.3 million annually in grantssince 2007.

In a May 31 blog post titled “All Scientific Hands on Deck to End the Opioid Crisis,” drug abuse institute director Nora Volkow and National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins extolled the importance of academic research.

“In 2015, two million people had a prescription opioid-use disorder, and 591,000 suffered from a heroin-use disorder; prescription drug misuse alone cost the nation $78.5 billion in health care, law enforcement and lost productivity,” Volkow and Collins wrote. “But while the scope of the crisis is staggering, it is not hopeless. Extraordinary focus is being brought to the opioid crisis by all segments of our society, so now is the time to leverage this awareness to accelerate the pace of research to develop new treatments.”

Of all active projects currently funded by the drug abuse institute, UK ranks 13th in funding of more than 400 organizations with $16.8 million, according to an analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Health. Johns Hopkins University tops the list with $42.2 million, followed by Yale University ($39 million) and University of California San Diego ($31.9 million).

“The University of Kentucky is fortunate to have a cadre of researchers who are committed to working on and solving our Commonwealth’s most pressing challenges and problems,” UK’s Blanton said. “The scourge of drug addiction — its impact on health, families, communities and the entire state — is clearly one of those fundamental issues of importance and challenge for Kentucky. It’s our responsibility as a flagship, land-grant institution to tackle that challenge. The grants are but one reflection of the talent and level of commitment that’s been assembled.”

The money provided by NIDA to UK made it possible to keep Cinnamon, who has given the Herald-Leader access to the life of an addict, in some comfortable digs during the study.

Cinnamon’s room at the hospital included a private bathroom, an adjustable bed and a TV. He wasn’t allowed to leave University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital, and no one was allowed to visit him. He was given a cellphone and any sort of food ( his preference was Chinese).

When he wasn’t performing a test or sample session, he read books, (“Junky” by William Burroughs was a favorite), wrote on Facebook about his life as an addict, and watched TV. He often called Thea Wright to check in on their three children — Drako, 6, Nahla, 3, and August, 1.

Compared to his life before going to jail in September, his time in the UK study was paradise.

Since getting addicted to opioids when he was a teenager in Lawrenceburg, his life has been a destructive cycle, punctuated by overdoses, homelessness, and jail cells.

Cinnamon has been jailed in Indiana’s Vanderburgh County jail and Branchville Correctional Facility, and more than a half-dozen other counties in Kentucky for possession-related crimes. He has never been charged with robbery or a violent crime.

After five months, he was released from his latest jail stay in early March. Wright remembers Cinnamon being “good” for two weeks before slipping back into addiction .

One of Cinnamon’s friends mentioned the UK study to him.

He has already put the $5,400 he earned from the study to use. He’s rented an apartment in Lexington and hopes to buy a used car. Whether that money is used to buy heroin is something Cinnamon thinks about often.

“I talked to my mom about giving the checks to her,” he said. “When you’re doing dope, it doesn’t matter if it's $10 or $10,000. If you’re going to do it, you’re going to do it. I can’t live in fear of having money for the rest of my life.”

Fernando Alfonso III: 859-231-1324, @fernalfonso