Prescription Painkiller Abuse in Small-Town Colorado

When a private pain clinic, High Country Medical, opened in downtown Craig, Colorado, it sparked an opioid addiction crisis that has yet to end.


| Summer 2017



Injecting

Josh Flaharty uses a syringe to inject Adderall, for which he has a prescription. While the medication comes in pills, "slamming" it produces a more immediate effect.

Photo by Paige Blankenbuehler

On a brisk, sunny day in mid-October, I drove through the affluent suburbs of Craig, Colorado, to a cottage-style house, where I’d been invited to breakfast. Josh Flaharty, a dark-haired 29-year-old with a thick goatee, tattooed arms and a slight potbelly, answered the door and welcomed me inside.

Flaharty, whom I’d met the night before, had been out of prison two months and was staying here, at his parents’ house, while he got back on his feet. He led me through the warmly lit home, down a narrow hallway, past woodcarvings of grizzly bears and into the kitchen, where he was making French toast and listening to rap music on a large PC tablet. We spoke briefly about his parents, who were at work, and about his former business building car stereos, which he called Audio Pollution. Before long, though, we were talking about his drug habit and his days as a dealer. Percocet was the easiest drug to find back then, he told me, and selling pills was less risky than heroin. He’d had plenty of practice breaking down opiate painkillers.

“They have a coating on them and gel up,” he said. “So what you do is scrape the coating off, cut it into like fourths or eights, put it on a piece of foil, put it in a toaster oven on 400 for about 20 minutes, until it turns into goo, and then put it in the freezer for a second and then throw it in your spoon and heat it up with water.” His hand shook as he dropped a dollop of butter into a sizzling pan. “And it’s exactly like heroin.”

Flaharty started using heroin a few years ago, he explained, drenching his French toast in syrup, but now he was looking to get clean, to be free of the painkillers, the marijuana, the cocaine, the crystal meth and the heroin, all the drugs he’d been using to one degree or another, prior to the assault that put him in prison four months earlier. Like other addicts in Craig, a small town on the sagebrush steppes of northwest Colorado’s coal country, Flaharty found himself in a self-destructive cycle, caught up in a drug epidemic that started with prescription pills and led to heroin. He found, too, that his small town was ill-equipped to help addicts like him deal with their problems. Since he started abusing drugs after high school, at least 60 people had overdosed in Moffat County, 13 of them fatally, according to the best available county-level estimates from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “If I keep doing it — ” he stammered, then paused. “I don’t want to. I know it doesn’t lead anywhere good.”

Before he finished his breakfast, Flaharty, who had begun pacing back and forth from the kitchen to the table, disappeared down a hallway, emerging a few moments later with a red plastic canister. He pulled off its black lid and removed half a dozen syringes, some so worn that the measurements on them had disappeared. Out, too, came a bent spoon, a wad of cotton and a hypodermic needle. From one of the dozen prescription bottles on the counter, he tapped out two orange pills — Adderall. “Have you ever seen anyone slam something before?” he asked, almost boastfully. “Do you mind?”

He crushed the pills with the spoon and mixed the powder with cold water. Then he placed a cotton ball on the spoon and plunged the needle into the cloudy, orange solution. His hands shook as he withdrew the plunger. He took a moment to steady himself. At last he filled the syringe, slid the needle into the crook of his elbow, and pushed the plunger. As the needle entered the vein, a small cloud of blood billowed into the syringe. Flaharty cleared his throat and looked up at me. “You can feel it in your heart and everything.”