Nearly 1,000 people packed into the auditorium of Highland Regional High School in Blackwood Wednesday night to hear a former basketball star chronicle his 14-year battle with addiction.
“When I was playing in the NBA, I was taking around 1,600 milligrams of OxyContin a day, so a $25,000-a-month habit,” said Chris Herren, a former star point guard for the Denver Nuggets and the Boston Celtics.
After “drinking and smoking on weekends” in high school, Herren eventually started using heroin. He overdosed four times before getting clean in 2008.
Now he travels the country as a public speaker, telling adults — but especially kids — his story.
“I think we’ve gone wrong with the way that we present addiction to [children]. I think we focus on the worst day instead of the first day,” said Herren. “Kids need to understand where it begins, not how it ends. It’s really hard for a kid sitting in a seat to look at a picture and say I can see myself there.”
The talk was part of an addiction summit organized by the Camden County Addiction Awareness Task Force, in response to rising rates of opioid and heroin abuse across the region.
“We have a lot of ports. We have urban areas, suburban areas. The Delaware Valley is a little bit of a magnet for drug and alcohol sales and activity,” said John Pellicane, Camden County’s drug and alcohol director.
“That’s one of the reasons why I think Camden County is finding itself in the midst of this problem, but also in the midst of the solution,” he said.
After Herren’s talk, some in the crowd walked to the cafeteria to meet with local groups handing out information on addiction, from treatment centers to drug abuse hotlines to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Bryana Zurad attends the county’s addiction summit at Highland Regional High School in Blackwood. (Joe Hernandez/WHYY)
Attendee Bryana Zurad, who is studying to be an addiction counselor at Camden County College, said she wants to advocate for addicts who are seeking treatment but still face the stigma attached to the disease.
“When they go to a hospital, they’re treated like dirt. And they’re treated like they don’t have an illness, which is completely ridiculous,” she said. “[Hospitals] care for patients that have other diseases instead of the ones that are facing addiction.”
According to Pellicane, Camden County is also grappling with its addiction problem by increasing the number of medication drop boxes, outfitting more police departments with the overdose-reversing drug Narcan, and holding more drug awareness events for middle-schoolers.