People visit the Outside In needle exchange to collect clean supplies for administering drugs. Steve Haught says finding opioids on the street is hard, but there's plenty of methamphetamines.

People visit the Outside In needle exchange to collect clean supplies for administering drugs. Steve Haught says finding opioids on the street is hard, but there’s plenty of methamphetamines.

Kristian Foden-Vencil/OPB

Steve Haught is 70 and retired. He worked manual labor when he was young and uses illegal opioids to relieve his pain.

The pandemic is wreaking havoc on his supply, he said. “There’s no one on the street. So it’s hard to find.”

Haught recently took light-rail into Portland from his home in Gresham to visit the Outside In needle exchange for supplies.

“I’m dealing with a houseful of drug addicts right now,” he said. “My wife has invited two couples over. And I didn’t know they were addicts.”

He was not happy about it.

“I actually walked out of the place and I’m done for a while.”

He said getting out of the house is his way of social distancing. And while he can’t find opioids, the methamphetamines his wife and guests are using seem plentiful.

“Yeah, the speed, they call it ‘clear,’ the amphetamines, it’s everywhere. They’re using it more than ever,” Haught said.

He said there’s not a lot else to do.

Haven Wheelock, who runs Outside In’s downtown Portland needle exchange program, said her clients are worried about the virus, but not as worried as they are about finding money.

“They’re more concerned about the economics of what’s happening,” Wheelock said. “So for instance, the bottle drops. A lot of people who’re living outside collect cans to turn in for money. But … retail stores have closed the ability to drop bottles, so there’s only the state-run drop sites.”

The state has added a drop site at its headquarters in Northwest Portland, but locations to exchange recyclables for refunds are still few and far between, so money is hard to come by for people who rely on can and bottle collections. And that means drugs are hard to come by, too. 

In fact, Wheelock said there may be a silver lining to this pandemic, as dealers are also having a harder time importing and distributing their drugs.

Haven Wheelock runs the needle exchange at Outside In in downtown Portland. She hopes the pandemic might encourage some people who use illegal drugs to stop. 

Haven Wheelock runs the needle exchange at Outside In in downtown Portland. She hopes the pandemic might encourage some people who use illegal drugs to stop. 

Kristian Foden-Vencil/OPB

“There’s a new energy around trying to get off drugs right now,” Wheelock said. “Like if someone’s scared that they’re not going to be able to get heroin, we want to be ready as a health care community to get those people on to medication if that’s what they want.”

She has heard talk of the federal government reducing restrictions to administering methadone, to allow less  contact at clinics.

“Typically, you would have to go every day to get your medication, for a pretty long period of time,” she said. “And so now, they’re lifting some of those restrictions, so instead of having to go every day, you can go once a week.”

Wheelock thinks that may make it easier for people to kick their habits. “These are changes they’ve wanted to do for a long time, and this is just a great opportunity to make it happen.”

That’s potentially good news for people struggling with serious drug and alcohol problems. 

But addiction therapist Heidi Wallace, executive director of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation in Oregon and Washington, said she worries the state’s stay-at-home order could trigger some people who don’t usually have a problem.

“Here are the feelings that breed addiction: isolation, depression, anxiety, boredom and stress. Okay, those are just a few,” Wallace said. “So what are people who aren’t struggling with addiction experiencing at home right now? Isolation, boredom, those exact things.”

Heidi Wallace is the executive director of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation for Oregon and Washington. She's worried the quarantine could trigger problems for some casual alcohol or drug users.

Heidi Wallace is the executive director of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation for Oregon and Washington. She’s worried the quarantine could trigger problems for some casual alcohol or drug users.

Kristian Foden-Vencil/OPB

She’s worried about headlines saying alcohol sales increased dramatically as the quarantine was put in place. She said people should take this opportunity to think about their relationship with alcohol.

“So if I have to go and purchase a bunch of alcohol, either, do I have a problem? Or do I feel like this is what I need to cope? And if I feel like this is what I need to cope, what else is going on? Maybe I need to look into this a little more,” Wallace said.

She said anyone in doubt about their substance use should reach out to a professional counselor. Initial consultations are usually free and quick.

“It’s just like any other medical condition,” she said. “You would go seek help and ask about it.”

Warning signs for addiction include withdrawal symptoms, lying about use, or a feeling that getting the next fix is more important than things like family, exercise and hobbies.

Most substance abuse organizations are now offering online sessions because of the quarantine. At Hazelden Betty Ford, they don’t have more than 16 people to a group and for those already in a group, they try and keep the same people – so people don’t have to air their issues to a completely new group of strangers, Wallace said.

“It looks like the Brady Bunch,” she said. “You’re on there and you see all the people in group. And you encourage them to reach out to one another during these times. And you have a counselor facilitating that group.”

Many insurance companies are now covering online meetings, just like they do in-person meetings.