Heroin does not discriminate; prevention, treatment best antidotes

More people will mourn Cory Monteith than Dylan Poindexter but the profound, painful stories of their lives wreaked the same grief on those who knew and loved them.

Our society's response to the wave of heroin overdoses and deaths that has arisen in recent years, and especially since a needed crackdown on illicit use of prescription pills, has been to beef up enforcement.

This is a legitimate and necessary response, but even more important is redoubling efforts to prevent abuse from taking control of young lives. There are lessons in this regard in the stories of these two young men.

"He was smart, he was funny, he was so cute," Donna Poindexter said about her son Dylan, who grew up in Richmond in a stable, loving home and died of a heroin overdose last month, not long before his 23rd birthday.

Cory Monteith "was talented, funny and absolutely kindhearted," Glee co-star Dustin Goolsby said about the 31-year-old actor who died of a heroin overdose Saturday, the day of Poindexter's memorial service.

Both struggled openly with their narcotic demons. Monteith told Parade Magazine in 2011 that he was "lucky to be alive," because of his long history of abuse. He had received treatment when he was 19, and had admitted himself to a facility again this April for substance addiction treatment.

Poindexter received treatment more than once, including almost a year in residential treatment this year and last. But by May he was using heroin again. "I'm spiraling down," he told his mother during a Mother's Day call. The week of June 12 his roommate found him dead.

These were young, talented men with resources and support and reasons to beat their addictions but neither survived.

So, that's one lesson. Addiction isn't reserved for only the poor and the marginalized. Smart, funny, talented kids like Dylan and Cory can, and do, become addicts. And all the miracles of modern medicine and treatment may not be enough to save them.

Another lesson is that when use and abuse begin early in life, they rewire developing brains, reinforcing dependency and making recovery all the harder.

Monteith reported drinking and taking drugs when he was 12 or 13. Poindexter's parents told reporter Valarie Honeycutt-Spears that their son had started smoking marijuana by 15 and moved on to presecription pain pills soon after.

Dylan Poindexter's parents chose to talk about his life and death in hopes their story would alert other young people and their families to the real dangers of early exposure to drugs.

So these stories are a reminder to all of us — family, friends, teachers, mentors — that it can be dangerous to dismiss warning signs with a wink and a nod, chalking them up to youthful experimentation. Some kids may be able to experiment and move on but some can't, and it's not at all clear which is which.

The lesson for society is that stigmatizing addiction as a failure of will, of individuals and families won't make it go away or save lives.

Instead, young people need and deserve to learn the real science about drug and alcohol abuse, what it can do to their brains and their bodies. And those struggling with substance abuse, and their families, must have access to affordable, quality treatment and support.