BERLIN – Michael DeLeon, a national public speaker from New Jersey, spends most of his year visiting schools and community organizations around the country, speaking to kids and adults about the growing drug epidemic.
Next week local nonprofit Growing Hope will bring DeLeon, founder of the national addiction education and prevention organization Steered Straight, to the Ocean City Convention Center, where he will offer members of the public a message of awareness, education and hope. The event, entitled “Be a Part of the Solution”, will be free and open to the public on Feb. 28 at 6 p.m.
DeLeon spoke with The Dispatch about the stigma surrounding addiction, the underlying reasons for this growing problem, and the stories that motivate him to share his experience and knowledge with kids and adults across the nation.
Q: To begin, what is your own personal experience with drug addiction and how did you use your story to form a career in public speaking?
A: I was running a multi-million dollar corporation and I got introduced to drugs and I destroyed my life and my organization. I lost my house, my family, everything. So I suffered drug addiction for five to six years. I ended up getting involved in criminal activity and gang activity and ended up going to prison for five years.
I got out of prison and 10 months out of prison, I got into a violent car accident. I was put on prescription medication – opiates, OxyContin – and it turned into a full-blown drug addiction again. I went out for two years and was using again and then went back to prison for seven years. So I spent 12 total years behind the wall with thousands of inmates. Eighty percent were there because of drugs.
So after prison, I started this nonprofit organization, going to the schools and talking about drugs. I became a certified alcohol and drug counselor, and I’ve placed people in treatment for four years. Starting in 2007, I’ve been doing workshops, teaching and researching. And then for the last four years, I made three documentary movies, all related to addiction – heroin, opiates and marijuana. I have three more movies coming out.
Q: What made you decide to share your story and why do you think that it is worth talking about?
A: I have a spiritual desire to do the right thing and make up for the wrongs of my past. So that is kind of the core of it. Secondly, my parents didn’t raise a drug addict. It was not their fault. And I see so many kids dying. We are in the world’s worst public health crisis the country has ever seen. [The year] 2016 saw more overdoses and more overdose deaths than any year in this country’s history and 2017 is going to blow that away. We’ll lose 100,000 over this. So it’s not the parents’ fault. It’s not the school district’s fault.
Just because of what I overcame, and what I learned, I just have an obligation, if I can, to prevent a kid from growing up to be like me. Because of the second chance and opportunity I have in my life, I feel obligated to do it, which is really the core of why I am doing this. We don’t want kids to grow up to be me. I want them to be who God destined them to be, who their parents and teachers are raising them to be. When I became a drug counselor, I lost four kids on my case list to an overdose and it really impacted me. I’ve been to 47 states for speaking and 40 states for filming. I’ve been to 162 funerals in four years and I want to stop it. I’m very passionate about it and I believe it’s my purpose. So my passion has met my purpose. I feel like that’s the secret to life.
Q: A lot of advocacy groups and organizations mention the stigma surrounding heroin and opioid addiction. I know a lot of what you speak on relates to prevention, but how do you address the issues and opinions that are already prevalent in society?
A: Stigma only leaves your life when addiction enters it. You only understand the stigma part of it when you become what you were stigmatizing. Most people with kids who grow up to suffer addiction would be the first one to tell their kids, “Don’t hang around those kids.” Almost every parent of a child suffering addiction will stigmatize too. I don’t ever judge those people who were stigmatizing against addicts. I just want to educate them.
I’ve seen some vile comments on people saying, “Let these losers die.” It’s horrible. I get it. But for the most part, those people have suffered themselves. They grew up with a father who’s an alcoholic and they have that hatred toward alcoholics or have siblings who are drug addicts and robbed from them. They are tired of seeing the same choices being made. So they don’t understand addiction and I want to educate them. Primarily most of what’s wrong is mental health. It’s not just drugs. It’s mental health illness, and that is the real stigma in this country. They don’t understand. Stigma is nothing more than a lack of understanding, or misunderstanding. So the only way to end stigma is to educate.
We can’t force these people to understand addiction. Here is the biggest danger, in my opinion. Nationwide the biggest danger to not educating the public is making excuses for addiction. We want to say addiction is a disease. It’s a brain disease. I get it. But to tell people in society that don’t understand it that it’s a lifelong disease, ‘once an addict, always an addict’, and making excuses for people who use drugs and relapse, that is really disingenuous and not helping the situation at all.
For instance, I am 15 years clean off of drugs. If I went out and used drugs today, it wouldn’t be because my brain has been rewired, or that I’m an addict. That’s kind of silly to blame my choice on my disease. What we are doing is giving people who are suffering from addiction excuses to their choices and behavior. People say addiction is not a choice. That is absolutely untrue. It is a choice in the beginning. You make this choice the first time. Very few people pick up drugs with zero knowledge about what drugs can do. Most of this addiction is not coming from illicit drugs anyway – heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana. Most of this is grounded in prescription drug medication. Doctors are handing out the drugs that are creating addiction in the first place. We are manufacturing addicts. If someone gets hooked on an opiate from a car accident or chronic back pain and goes to heroin, do we say they have the disease of addiction or do we say that the disease of addiction was created by the doctor? There are so many tentacles to this thing. We can’t say addiction is not a choice. It is a choice in the beginning.
Secondly, it is a choice if we continue to go back and relapse. I know it’s not a choice when we are in the midst of it. The choice is gone. But now 14 years clean, I darn sure have a choice. When people tell me, “I have the disease. It’s not my fault,” that’s really bad and people in society who are stigmatizing against it are not educated and are not getting it. We are not educating them and we need to tell people that addiction is a choice in the beginning and a choice once we find recovery. However, in the beginning the choice is being made by a kid between the ages of 11-17 for the most part. So what kind of choice is that really? Ninety percent of this addiction is grounded in ages 11-17 – mostly tobacco, alcohol and marijuana – and 75 percent of the opiate addiction is grounded in opiate prescriptions by a doctor. The way to get over stigma is education. That is what we have to do.
Q: In your travels, how have you seen this heroin and opioid epidemic affect society? Is it really as bad as some might lead you to believe?
A: No, absolutely not. It is much, much worse. It’s no longer an epidemic. It’s a pandemic. It’s the worst public social health crisis America has ever seen. We are losing more people to an overdose in every state in America than we are to a car accident. You are more likely to die of an accidental overdose than you are likely to die in a car accident. Some states – Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Tennessee, New Jersey – were four or five times the national average. It’s really bad. Secondly, we have lost more people to an overdose in 2016 than ever before. The numbers aren’t even completely out. All they have out is 2015 numbers and 2015 was the No. 1 year. So we lost more people in 2015, and 2016 is going to be even worse. 2017 will be the worst year we ever saw. I predict 100,000 overdoses in 2017.
Heroin is a part of the problem, but think about that. Everyone is so focused on heroin, and it’s not heroin. Even in 2017, for every heroin overdose, there are two overdoses from a pain pill. Last year, there were three times as many overdoses from a pain prescription pill than there was to heroin. Opiates are much more of a problem than heroin is. And now heroin is not going to be heroin much longer. There’s more adulterated heroin. If you look at the real numbers, three-quarters of every heroin overdose is not heroin. It’s poly drugs. There are other drugs in there. A third of the heroin overdoses are heroin and a benzodiazepine. Some people say it’s half. Thirty-five to 50 percent of heroin overdoses contain a benzodiazepine in the toxicology report. It wasn’t heroin that killed them. It was heroin and a combination of Xanax, heroin and a combination of Clonidine or Valium. Heroin is not the problem.
It’s the addiction grounded in the addiction of tobacco, alcohol and marijuana between the ages of 11-17 and opiate medication and stimulant prescription. I got some slack from people in your area about my comment on the radio about stimulant medication, and instead of backing away from it, I’m going to double down. I am not a doctor and I don’t have real medical experience, but I can tell you just on the numbers and the over 1,300 treatment centers I have visited in the last nine years. I asked every treatment center I go to, adolescent or adult, what is the first medication you remember taking in your life, and 75 percent of the time it’s Adderall or Ritalin. We are over-prescribing these drugs, and it’s a factor in addiction. Now heroin is just the end of the problem. I always tell people it’s not our problem, it’s the end of our problem. Our problem begins much earlier. Now heroin is not going to be heroin anymore because we are adulterating it with Fentanyl and other synthetic chemicals.
What I tell people is 2017-2018 will be the beginning of a synthetic storm. It’s not going to be heroin that people are talking about. It’s going to chemicals people are talking about – Flakka, moon rocks, bath salts and different names given to them right now. We are going to see a synthetic storm of synthetic chemicals destroy this country. There are the two main threats I am worried about. That is one and the second is the legalization of what they are calling marijuana, which is not marijuana. It’s a genetically modified PFC poison. Those are the two biggest threats I see in this country.
Q: A majority of your year is spent traveling to schools and other organizations around the nation. How will you give individuals in Worcester County information that is applicable to them?
A: I experience that a lot. I live in New Jersey and I travel across the country and was gone 307 days last year. I did a movie called “Kids are Dying” and I shot it all in Camden, N.J. It was the story of suburban and rural kids who ended up on the streets of Camden, next to Philadelphia, hooked on heroin. I asked 137 kids how they hell they got there, and 121 out of 137 said they found their way there through prescription opiate medication. They were prescribed an opiate by a doctor, became addicted to the opiates and found themselves on heroin. And 137 out of 137 kids had three things in common – they smoked marijuana when they were a kid, they drank alcohol when they were underage, and they used tobacco, either cigarettes or vapes. That is the trifecta gateway – tobacco, alcohol, marijuana.
We’ve known that since the 70s. It’s irrefutable the origins of addiction for adults starts at ages 11-17 and it starts with those three gateway drugs. I pitched this to A&E, and they said, ‘It shows New Jersey. We just didn’t want a New Jersey perspective. We want a national perspective. Show us what is going on across the nation.’ So I went to 40 states and I made a documentary called “An American Epidemic” and what I saw in Camden, I saw in Indianapolis. What I saw in Camden, I saw in Detroit. What I saw in Detroit, I saw in Baltimore. For anybody to think that their county, city, township is unique to any other township, county or city in America, they are just uninformed.
The problems in Worcester County are no different than my county in New Jersey. It’s the same exact thing. You don’t get a Big Mac in Ocean City, Md., different than the one you get in L.A. Why anybody would think that someone from out of town can’t come in and tell people what is going on in their city is out of their minds. It’s the same exact thing. The origin of this pandemic is the same in Ocean City as it is in Ocean City, N.J. – marijuana, alcohol and tobacco, and a lack of prevention. We are spending 3 percent of our money on this. Kids don’t get this education in school. It’s not on standardized tests. So we aren’t teaching drug awareness and education. The churches are no different in Worcester County than they are in Massachusetts. The Internet is no different in Worcester County than it is in Orange County, Calif. There are counties around the country who are dealing with it in much higher levels, but I’ve never seen any uniqueness anywhere else. I’m disheartened across the country when national names and national people want to come in an impact our communities and others feel threatened or feel like they have people here that can do that. That is really short-sighted, and it’s really dangerous. I have good information, and I can tell people in Ocean City that might not have seen what’s taking place in pandemic areas. I’ve spent the past two years in and out of Colorado, Washington and Oregon, and a little bit in Alaska. I’ve been watching marijuana commercialization for three straight years in Colorado. I can tell Maryland what is coming their way. Why would you not want someone to come back and tell you what’s taking place somewhere else, if you don’t hear the truth? I want to tell people everywhere I go the real threat and what marijuana has become so they don’t make the same mistake the voters of Colorado made.
Q: Your program, Steered Straight, is geared toward showing children, teens and young adults the consequences of life choices. How will your message at the Ocean City Convention Center speak to others in the audience who are already living with the consequences? Is your message more than just a preventative one?
A: Sometimes parents say, “Well my kid is in second grade. I don’t need to hear about that.” Well, before you know it your kid is going to be in sixth grade. In sixth grade, there is experimentation – early onset alcohol experimentation, early onset marijuana experimentation, and tobacco and vapes. There was a 600 percent increase last year in kids being introduced to vapes. They may be safer than cigarette for adults, but not safe for kids. It’s prevention for community members and it’s awareness. A lot of people have no idea the extent of what is happening and they need to be more aware. So I want to educate the public. Secondly, I want to give hope to people who are in recovery. The last time I was there, I probably had a dozen or so (people) in recovery or early recovery. So we need to hear from each other and we need to talk and encourage each other and encourage people that recovery is possible.
If I can overcome my past, and I can overcome the stigma and damage in my past, than anybody can overcome things and succeed even ten times better than me. It’s to encourage people in recovery and give information to parents. If parents come and their child is already addicted, they will need resources. I work with the best resources in the country. With or without insurance, it doesn’t matter. I can tell people and show people where to go. Sometimes they need to hear from people like me that they need to see that it is possible and they need to believe in the fact that their kid can overcome addiction and recovery. They will also know that they need to go get help too. They need to get counseling and therapy. Addiction affects the family, and the family has been affected. My message for the community at the Convention Center is that I want law enforcement there. I want cops in this country to be less jaded. I want cops to understand that they are making a difference. The way media is painting law enforcement in this country is a travesty. Cops go to work jaded every day and they don’t know that they are making a difference. The badge matters and I want them to know that the badge matters.
I want first responders to know how much of a difference they are making. Sometimes first responders are bringing the same people back multiple times with Narcan. I had a first responder who said he brought this one kid back 10 times and how many times must he keep bringing that kid back. Maybe as many times as it takes until the guy gets it. He said, ‘Well he’ll be dead first. We are just wasting our time.’ I don’t judge him. I want to encourage and educate him about addiction. You aren’t going to reach him if you keep Narcaning him at the hospital and releasing him to get high again. We are not accomplishing anything. He needs to know how important he is. I want business owners to come so they can understand the importance of random drug testing and what is happening with marijuana. I think the biggest misconception in America is that marijuana is marijuana. It’s now totally changed into a genetically modified poison that people have no idea what it is, and I want to educate them, especially business owners, educators, parents and legislators.
Q: What is your favorite, or most surprising part, about speaking to members of the public about addiction?
A: I worked on a commercial a few years ago that encourages kids to write letters to their parents about how much their parents mean to them and how great a job their parents are doing. If you take 100 parents and 100 of their kids, and tell them to give their parent a grade, the GPA of the kids would be much higher than the GPA of the parent. We don’t think we are doing a good job. Kids always say their parents are going a better job than the parents think they are doing because we wish we could spend more time with our kids. We would give ourselves B’s and C’s and our kids will give us A’s. I want kids to write letters to their parents. The best part of my day is getting emails – and I get hundreds a week – from parents, aunts and uncles who are raising kids, and grandparents who are raising grandkids, that this letter was written by their grandson, niece or son that changed the dynamic of their family, that changed the conversation to allow the kid and parent to sit down and talk about addiction. A mom called me the other day and said it was so funny that her 14-year-old son came home and told her about my entire story. “My 14-year-old kid has never come home to tell me anything. How was school today? Fine. What did you do? Nothing. What did you learn? Nothing. My son came home and talked about your entire story and it urged me to go to your website and look you up. I saw all of these resources for parents and I watched all of your commercials and videos.” Listen, I took from people. I took from society. I was a bad person.
God has given me the ability to do more good in my life than I did bad. I just want to prevent kids from becoming me. So when family members write or email me and say, “Keep doing what you are doing. You made a difference in my family. My son came home.” … If you can impact a child one time in your life, that is the meaning of life. And it is happening to me over and over again.
I’m just making up for the horrors I’ve done on so many peoples’ lives, like my wife. We’ve been married 28 years, and 12 of those 28 years she has been married to me I was a prison inmate. I hurt a lot of people. So I am just making up for the wrong I did. I am getting more and more driven by the good things that are happening. I called yesterday and said, “Give me the county jail. Give me a youth group. Give me the treatment center. Let me talk to the Rotary Club. Is the Kiwanis meeting that morning? Who can I go talk to?” I will do a pep rally at Walmart. I’ll go anywhere. I’ll talk to anybody. Let me talk to people about becoming more aware of addiction, about addiction education and the things happening with marijuana. Let me help those get treatment. Let me encourage those in recovery to stay in recovery. Let me make a difference. I am not the end-all-be-all expert, the greatest in the world, but I am really educated on this and I’m super passionate. I just want to make more of a difference.