From grief to advocacy, a father takes action on opioid epidemic

  • Doug Griffin and his wife Pamela Griffin hold a photo of their daughter, Courtney, who died of a heroin overdose in 2014 at the age of 20. Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 12/1/2017 11:39:06 PM

Doug Griffin’s view on the opioid epidemic has shifted since he lost his daughter, Courtney, to a fentanyl overdose three years ago at the age of 20.

At first, he shied away from his pastor even mentioning how Courtney died during her funeral service. But one year later, he wanted anyone who could to hear Courtney’s story.

He testified before a panel at St. Anselm College that included the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the acting deputy administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, about how New Hampshire was struggling under the weight of its opioid problem.

One moment stands out – someone, he can’t remember who, asking him what the worst part of his daughter’s addiction was.

“I pulled out a needle I had found in my home and said, ‘Finding this,’ ” he said.

Such gestures are common from Griffin; he once demonstrated Narcan before the New Hampshire Senate while a bill to allow anyone to posses and administer the drug was being debated. He wants people to remember his daughter for more than her addiction, but sometimes, some extra “shock and awe” value is needed.

“Sometimes you need to need to wake people up,” he said.

That’s what Griffin, of Newton, hopes to do as the first chairman of the new state chapter of the Addiction Policy Forum.

To get people involved, Griffin said he will be appointing 10 county leaders – one for each county in the state – to gather information about resources that will be shared online. He’ll also be advocating for more funding in Washington, D.C., and implementing the forum’s eight strategic priorities, which include expanding treatment access and integration into healthcare, protecting children impacted by parental substance use disorders and reframing the criminal justice system.

Griffin’s own involvement in combating the drug epidemic already includes serving as a board member for the Merrimack Valley Prevention and Substance Abuse Project in Methuen, Mass. and a co-chair of the Families Committee for 144aday New England, a group that highlights the fact that on 144 people overdose a day in this country.

Griffin wants to get people to focus on all aspects of addiction – and to encourage communities to take charge of fixing the opioid problem, rather than waiting for federal resources.

“We’ve been waiting for the federal government to bail us out, and nothing’s been really happening,” he said. “(One of the things) the Policy Forum has been working on is developing educational material for communities to use.”

He added: “The way to do this is to do it ourselves. Sitting around and waiting for the federal government to fix the problem isn’t going to happen.”

Griffin certainly hasn’t been waiting around – he’s testified before legislative bodies several times, not just the aforementioned instances.

But carrying Courtney’s death is heavy load: A big man, with a thick, wild head of hair and beard, Griffin’s voice goes soft when he speaks her name. He remembers Michael Botticelli, the drug czar at the St. Anselm panel, taking one of his daughter’s prayer cards, which Griffin carries with him wherever he goes.

A year later, he heard Botticelli still had that prayer card, proof of his daughter’s impact. It was a small comfort for Griffin.

“It doesn’t make it any easier,” he said.

A changing landscape

The conversation about addiction has changed in the three years since Courtney died, Griffin said.

For one, the stigma around addiction has waned. “The world has admitted its a disease,” he said.

Griffin said he was heartened when Gov. Chris Sununu promised to promote more “recovery friendly workplaces” in his “100 Businesses in 100 Days” report.

But there’s still leaps and bounds of work to be done, Griffin said. In particular, he is frustrated by the lack of sober living facilities and long-term treatment resources available in the state that would give those suffering addiction a place to recover.

Resources, he said, that could have helped Courtney. Before she died, he said he and his wife had to remove her from their home and cancel her insurance, so she could be declared homeless and qualify for treatment in Massachusetts.

Instead, she lived with her boyfriend in his grandparents’s house in Plaistow, where she would end up dying – a day before she was scheduled to begin treatment.

A year later, her boyfriend, who had gotten out of prison 72 hours earlier, died of an overdose in the same place. He had no where else to go, Griffin said.

Places where “you can be held accountable … and find your way back to society,” is what the state needs, he said.

What he said the state doesn’t need is more money for the enforcement side of the opioid epidemic, which the state just received in the form of a $688,856 federal grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. The money goes to the state’s Department of Safety, Division through the Anti-Heroin Task Force Program.

The money was applauded by the state’s congressional delegation and New Hampshire State police alike.

“We need sustained investment in New Hampshire’s efforts to fight this crisis, and I’ll keep urging the Trump administration and Congress to act so New Hampshire receives the assistance it desperately needs,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen said in a statement.

Col. Christopher Wagner, director of the New Hampshire State Police, said Wednesday the money will provide “much-needed relief” in funding state and local law enforcement partnership initiatives, improve technology capabilities, and broaden statewide intelligence sharing among all branches of law enforcement.

But Griffin took a different view.

“What are you going to do, hire more policemen?” he said. “I don’t agree with spending more money on law enforcement. ...You don’t need to be locking more people up.”

(Griffin can be reached at 944-1377 or at Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)

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