At 16 years, he got the first taste. Immediately he was hooked.
Two years later, a college baseball injury allowed him to get another bite.
His sophomore year, it started to become recreational.
By junior year, it was spiraling out of control.
And by senior year, he was completely gone.
Max Cordio was never exposed to alcohol or drugs in high school, but after he got his wisdom teeth removed at the age of 16, he was exposed to opioid-based painkillers. Cordio said, even though he did not do drugs for another two years, he feels he was already addicted.
“As soon as I took [the drug] I knew I liked it and I wanted to get that feeling back,” Cordio said.
Cordio got the feeling back his freshman year at UW-Whitewater after a baseball injury and hernia surgery landed him with more painkillers. In his sophomore year, he started using opioids recreationally.
“Before you know anything about the drug, you say ‘I can use this once in a while just to have a good time,’ and so that’s what I did,” Cordio said “As I did that more and more, I started taking more and more [at a time].”
This path quickly led to more drugs and alcohol. Many painkiller-abusers take a similar path, according to an MSNBC report. The end result is almost always the same thing: addiction to heroin.
The growing ‘epidemic’
In the 1990s, the U.S. saw a rapid rise of opioid narcotic medications being prescribed to reduce pain outside hospitals. According to David Nordstrom, Ph.D., a former associate professor at UW-Whitewater and an epidemiologist, pain relievers used to be difficult to obtain.
“People sometimes were dying in hospitals or in their home without sufficient access to pain relief, and so there were concerns that there wasn’t compassionate care,” Nordstrom said in an interview in 2013. “And so slowly, the medical practices began to change, and doctors began to become more comfortable with allowing their patients to use these very strong pain relievers.”
Ryan Shogren is the special agent in charge of the High Intensive Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) Heroin Initiative, part of the Wisconsin Department of Justice and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. The taskforce was created in 2011 in response to heroin becoming an “epidemic.”
Shogren said painkiller addiction started rising in Wisconsin in the late 1990s to early 2000s. It wasn’t long before the government noticed the quick rise in prescription drug-related deaths and advised doctors to be more cautious when prescribing these painkillers.
Almost simultaneously, heroin use began to rise. In Wisconsin, there were 34 heroin-related deaths in 2000, according to a special report from the Green Bay Press Gazette. That number rose to 199 in 2012.
This opioid drug is synthesized from morphine, a natural substance taken from Asian opioid poppy plants. It is usually a white or brown powder that is cooked into a liquid then injected with a needle. Recent trends show that heroin can now be snorted or smoked.
Heroin was not only creeping into the homes of minorities or unemployed lower-class as it was in the past. Everyone was using it: wives, husbands, children, every minority and social class.
It is also being found in every area of the country, from small suburban towns to populated cities. Even the small city of Whitewater, Wis. has seen its share of heroin.
UW-Whitewater Police Chief Matthew Kiederlen said that while no official reports have been made, heroin paraphernalia has been found on campus.
Whitewater Police Chief Lisa Otterbacher said from June 2012 to December 2014, there were seven cases of reported heroin overdoses, two of which resulted in the user’s death.
“It [heroin] has been a problem long term, but a notable increase over the past couple of years,” Otterbacher said.
This trend is mirrored throughout the U.S.
“It’s not like it’s dirty and back-alleyish like it used to be,” Shogren said. “Now it comes in off-white powders, brown or tan powders, and it looks much more harmless than it did in the past. You can’t just point to any one person or demographic because there are no boundaries.”
Heroin is also cheaper than painkillers: Shogren said enough heroin to get high costs $10 to $15, while one pill of OxyContin, not enough to get the strong high that many people want, costs $80 to $100.
More to the problem
Roger Young, a professor in the occupational & environmental safety and health department at UW-Whitewater, said with heroin overdose victims often have other drugs in their body.
“Often time with there is a heroin or opiate overdose … [police] don’t report the fact the person has also other sedatives in their system,” Young said. “The combination of opioids and depressants, which includes alcohol and benzos [Benzodiazepine, such as Valium], in combination they have an additive effect on depressing breathing and can be extremely dangerous.”
That’s exactly what happened to Max Cordio.
After using drugs and alcohol regularly for about five years, Cordio overdosed. He had taken 12 Ambien sleeping pills, 10 Vicodin pills and drunk alcohol. It was his father’s birthday.
“My roommates found me passed out on the couch and called my dad, they didn’t call 911,” Cordio said. “My dad ended up taking me into the emergency room.”
Cordio called the overdose a “blessing in disguise.”
“That was what I needed to do to tell him I wanted to get help,” Cordio said. “I think that’s the case for most people: it has to be a life-changing event for them to stop.”
Cordio entered a voluntary rehab facility for 30 days and nights. He said while in treatment, both he and his family learned why he chose the path he did. For Cordio, it was dealing with his anxiety and worry about life after college. The drugs and alcohol would take away the worry, and it was the only solution Cordio felt he had access to.
“At the time, my family didn’t understand that taking anxiety or depression medication is actually an OK thing to do,” Cordio said. “After I got into treatment and my family and I learned more about it, they agreed that it was a good thing that I should get on something”
Out of the 30 people in the program, Cordio was the only one to successfully complete it. He said the support from his loved ones helped him through the program. The realization that he almost died helped him to finally fight the addiction.
“I knew I wanted to stop, but you’re so deep into it and you’ve done so many wrong things that you don’t know how,” Cordio said. “Me almost having to die was how I had to stop.
“It’s hard for somebody to stop unless they want to. It’s sad to say, but something has to happen to them negatively. It doesn’t have to be big, it doesn’t have to be small, just something that changes the way they think about their addiction.”
The low success rate in Cordio’s program is common among treatment programs. Young said as many as 90 percent of people addicted to drugs relapse at least once. Many drug addicts don’t even make it to treatment, Young said.
“Up to this point, because of our laws, a person who struggles with addiction, especially this group of drugs, had two options: They’d either overdose and die, or get incarcerated,” Young said. “We now know by history that incarceration does not cure addiction, it doesn’t even come close. So people that are in the prison system, when they get out they return to [drugs] right away, most of the time.”
One full year of methadone maintenance treatment is approximately $4,700 for one person, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The cost of maintaining one person in prison is roughly $24,000.
According to the same organization:
- There were 7.2 million people were on probation, parole, jail or prison in 2009
- 3.6 million to 4.7 million of those inmates were diagnosed as being addicted to drugs or alcohol
- Of those, 7 to 17 percent receive treatment while incarcerated
- “Most of the over 650,000 inmates released back into the community each year have not received needed treatment services,” the report states.
For those who are not successful in treatment, or who never receive it, the addiction to heroin almost never falters. Its effects are so strong, the addict will do anything to get the high, Otterbacher said.
“Drug dependent people have difficultly holding down a job, thus revenue becomes a challenge, which transitions into stealing,” Otterbacher said. “We have seen an increase in motor vehicle entries and burglaries. Many times we have linked the crimes back to known drug users, most recently heroin users.”
Cordio knows the desperation of a heroin addict all too well. After spending $30,000 of savings on drugs, Cordio would steal money from his father’s bar, which happened to be located right next door to his dealer.
While heroin is cheaper than prescription painkillers, it is still an expensive habit, as many addicts typically use at least twice a day, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. All the money goes toward an illegal industry making up to $150 billion a year, Young said.
In a November 2013 article from the Milwaukee Law Journal, former District Attorney Mike McCann said he questioned how his office handled drug cases, by simply arresting users and putting them in jail.
“That only resulted in a bloated prison population of mostly black residents, and didn’t get to the real root of the addiction problem,” McCann said. “It certainly wasn’t completely effective in wiping out drugs because drug use still continues.”
Gov. Scott Walker, R-Wis., recently signed legislation to change the way drug cases are handled. The seven bills, known as the Heroin Opiate Prevention and Education, or H.O.P.E. Agenda, aim to “be a little bit more compassionate” to drug addicts, Young said.
“In this country, we take such a harsh view against people who use certain kinds of drugs,” Young said. “Governor Walker signing these bills is an attempt to be a little bit more compassionate, because what we need is compassion and authenticity, we don’t need more laws.”
Some of the bills included in the H.O.P.E. Agenda are:
- Assembly Bill 447: provides limited immunity for people who report an overdose, meaning the person reporting the overdose will likely not have to worry about consequences against themselves.
- Assembly Bill 702: allows for short-term punishments for addicts who violate conditions of extended supervision, parole, etc.
- Assembly Bill 668: nearly doubles funding for treatment programs as an alternative for incarceration.
- Assembly Bill 446: requires all EMTs to carry naloxone, a drug that counteracts opiate overdoses.
All seven bills were authored in part by Rep. John Nygren, R-Wis.
Nygren “has a daughter who has struggled with heroin addiction,” Young said. “It’s just interesting to me that if you’re personally affected, you finally do some good legislation. But it doesn’t matter how this came out, it’s good legislation.”
The Milwaukee Law Journal reported that “A 2012 analysis by the Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison showed that increased investment in TAD [Treatment Alternative and Diversion] and drug court programs could save the state tens of millions of dollars a year.”
In the same article, Carol Carlson, Milwaukee County Drug Treatment Court coordinator, said a person who enters Milwaukee County’s drug court and avoids incarceration can save the state or county, on average, about $12,000.”
Shifting from incarcerating drug addicts, to getting them treatment was the first major change in how the U.S. dealt with the rise in heroin use. Other tactics included forming task forces to educate the public about the drug, such as the HIDTA Heroin Initiative that Shogren is in charge of, as well as the Drug Task Force formed by the Whitewater Police Department in 2012.
Otterbacher said Whitewater police officers voluntarily sought additional training in drug enforcement, and the department works with UW-Whitewater Police Services and county task forces to “fight the increasing war on drugs.”
At a state level, the Wisconsin Department of Justice has made heroin one of its top priorities over the last few years.
Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen recently travelled around Wisconsin to spread the word of the department’s campaign against heroin, The Fly Effect.
“Law enforcement, health care providers, and first responders already know that heroin is a major issue confronting our state,” Van Hollen said in a press release. “It is my goal to educate young people, and those who care about young people, about the dangers of this illegal drug so they never experiment with it, and so we can put a stop to this epidemic before it takes another life.”
TheFlyEffect.com is an interactive web campaign that shows the progression from trying heroin for the first time to becoming addicted, starting to steal from family members, and possibly dying in the end. The campaign includes video testimonies from addicts, recovering addicts and families of people who died of heroin overdoses.
The Wisconsin Department of Justice also sponsors the annual Prescription Drug Take-Back Day. On April 26, 200 stations were set up throughout the state for people to anonymously drop off expired or unused prescription drugs. This annual event occurs throughout the U.S., and this year, Wisconsin ranked third in the country with 25 tons of prescription drugs dropped off.
Living a new life
“Any day sober that is stressful is better than any day that you’re using … Once you start having sober days, everything makes more sense.”
It’s been almost five years since his close call with death, and Cordio said he is a completely different person.
He now speaks in Young’s Alcohol and Other Drugs classes to tell his story of addiction and recovery.
“It’s a good reminder to myself how good I have it now and what I went through,” Cordio said. “It’s also good for people to understand that it could happen to anyone. I’ve been fortunate to have a good family and a good life, but it doesn’t mean that just because I have nice things and I’m a good person that it couldn’t happen to me. It can happen to anyone.”
Cordio owns and runs an indoor baseball facility and operates a non-profit youth baseball team in Madison with his business partner Greg Reinhart. Cordio said he has not touched any type of addictive substance since his treatment.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about it every day,” Cordio said. “It crosses my mind every day, however, it’s not as strong. You just have to remind yourself how good you have it right now, and I think that’s the biggest thing, is how lucky I am and fortunate to have a good business, have good family, have a great girlfriend and all that. I wouldn’t have that if I wasn’t sober.”