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The Daily Tar Heel

Q&A with scientist and director of research Wendee Wechsberg

Last week, Academy Award-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died from what is believed to be a heroin overdose, drawing national attention to the issues surrounding drug addiction. The Daily Tar Heel spoke with Wendee Wechsberg, principal scientist and senior director of Substance Abuse Treatment Evaluations and Interventions at RTI International in Research Triangle Park and an adjunct professor at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, about heroin use and its role in Hoffman’s death.

DAILY TAR HEEL: Do you feel that the stigma attached to substance abuse prevents addicts from seeking help?

WENDEE WECHSBERG: That’s kind of a complicated question — it’s a complicated answer. So, people are stigmatized from using drugs and, yes, sometimes they don’t seek help because they’re totally into their addiction, and it’s hard to seek help because, one, either they’re in denial, because they’re into their addiction and they don’t see a way out, or they don’t think it’s bad, or they think it’s under control. And everyone else, they think it’s bad, but they have a handle on it. So, one of the hardest things for people who are addicted is that they’re in denial about where they are in their addiction and their addiction cycle.

For example, this incredibly talented actor (Philip Seymour Hoffman) was sober for so many years and just had this horrible relapse. Sometimes when people relapse, they relapse worse than they ever were when they were first addicted.

DTH: How do you think substance abuse can be prevented?

WW: For heroin, there’s a law right now we’re trying to get passed with Naloxone because you can reverse the effects of an overdose with Naloxone. If emergency workers had it with them all the time, they could just give it to somebody that just overdoses, and it will reverse the effect of an overdose of opiates. And many states have actually approved the use of it … they’ve done it in California, and some other places as well.

The N.C. governor has signed a Good Samaritan law regarding Naloxone — they will not arrest you in North Carolina if you report an overdose, seek medical help or distribute Naloxone among drug users.

DTH: Do college students suffer from abuse problems more than non-students?

WW: They get really crazy that first semester when there is sudden greater freedom, and then they start settling down. What they don’t realize is alcohol poisoning … occurs when they drink way too much … and also they have their “pill parties,” where they swallow all these pills in a jar or a bowl, and people black out and don’t know what happened, and things happen sexually, things happen to women, they don’t know what happened when they wake up so there is danger.

They’ve left home, they’ve come to a new place, there’s no rules like they’re used to and then they start settling down.

DTH: Is this area — the Triangle — or North Carolina as a whole more prevalent as far as addictions than other places?

WW: No. I wouldn’t say that. But I think all students like to party. It’s the binge partying that I’m always concerned about because one of the things that young people do not realize is that the brain is still developing until age 25. So, the brain is affected by alcohol and drug use. And while people are partying and drinking … alcohol, smoking pot and doing these crazy things on a binge, they’re affecting their brain, and they don’t realize it, especially drinking a lot of alcohol. They’re dehydrating their brain, and they wonder why they get a really bad hangover. So, it’s a lot of lack of information, and the government has cut back on education, where people aren’t being educated about these things they’re doing to their body.

There was a study that went on at UNC, I remember teaching about it when I was over there (as an adjunct professor), there was a nice study talking about alcohol and drug use … there’s plenty of that going on. And part of that is emerging adulthood, figuring things out, and people will do that. That’s sort of normal behavior, but it’s also knowing when to stop.

DTH: Do you feel that the legalization of recreational drugs in other states makes it more acceptable for people to use illegal ones? That people justify it in that way?

WW: I know there’s a lot of debate about it right now but I actually have a lot of concerns about it, because I’m very concerned about youth using drugs, and the things that happen. We’ve spent so much money on the policing side of drugs, we’re not spending enough time on the prevention side. As far as what drugs do for people who are terminally ill, for people that need certain drugs for pain, I think that’s very important, but the debate on legalizing certain drugs — I’m trying to stay out of that debate as much as possible because I do have some concerns about it.

I know that people want it, and it will calm down the waters with a lot of people, but I work on the side of addiction. And I see what it does in destroying lives, and I worry about the debate. I don’t think we’re done with it.

DTH: What can be done to prevent relapses?

WW: Individually, people go to meetings, people can be religious, people do lots of things to keep themselves on a lifestyle that’s healthy. There are lots of little tricks that people would say in the field to make sure — you’re not going to get too cranky, too tired, too overworked, (not) hanging out with the wrong people.

I used to say – really check out your playthings, playmates and playgrounds, because if all your friends are doing drugs, if all the things you’re doing around you are drugs and where you’re hanging out are bars and places where people do drugs ­— what’s the likelihood that you will relapse?

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