The Opioid Crisis Is Ravaging Utah's Mormon Community

By John Lavitt 06/09/16

One person dies each day from opioid overdose in Utah, and many of the victims are Mormon. 

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The Opioid Crisis Is Ravaging Utah's Mormon Community

Although Mormon law discourages the use of illegal drugs, alcohol, tobacco and even caffeine, it hasn't shielded Utah—where 65% of state residents are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—from the national opiate epidemic.

Figures from the Utah Department of Health show the extent of the problem. Utah experienced a 400% increase in prescription drug overdose deaths from 2000 to 2014. And in 2014, one-third of adults were prescribed an opioid painkiller. According to the state health department, 24 people die every month from prescription drug overdose in the state. In 2014 alone, 300 people died from prescription drug overdose, ranking Utah fourth highest in the United States.

Officials told the Deseret News that it's unclear just how many Utahns die from heroin overdose each year. But Utah Department of Public Safety Commissioner Keith Squires said heroin is making a comeback—not among hardcore drug users, but people who started out on prescription painkillers.

The Guardian interviewed Utahns affected by opiate addiction. "Doctors prescribed Maline lots of pain medications in conjunction with Valium and antidepressants," Mindy Vincent, who is in recovery, told the newspaper. "I think my sister found the medication helped with the physical pain but it also eased emotional pain." Maline was Vincent's sister, and also a devout Mormon who didn't smoke or drink alcohol, or even coffee. But she took prescription drugs.

"She was a firm believer that because the doctor prescribed the pills it was OK. She didn’t see any shame in it. She didn’t think she was an addict. It wasn’t like taking drugs. But she was on the painkillers for 15 years until they wouldn’t give her any more," said Vincent. "She eventually ended up getting some heroin because she couldn’t get any more pills. My sister used heroin one time and she died."

Vincent's father and brother were also prescribed painkillers to cope with multiple surgeries and a basketball injury. "Before you knew it, my brother, my dad and my sister were all sharing pills," said Vincent. "They look at that like that’s normal and OK because it was prescribed but the prescriptions weren’t for each other." Her father is dependent on the medication and her brother started using heroin.

Dan Snarr, a leader within the LDS church, saw this happen when his son Denver fatally overdosed on prescription painkillers at the age of 25. Snarr told the Guardian that Denver had become dependent on the drugs after a rugby injury. “We have a catastrophe now in Utah with opiate overdoses,” he said. 

John Huber, the U.S. attorney in Salt Lake City, recently said, “We cannot arrest and prosecute our way out of this heroin epidemic. There is an insatiable appetite in Utah for pain pills and for heroin. We have to address this as a community.”

“Sometimes it’s difficult for the LDS church to admit there’s a problem," said Snarr. "But they need to recognize there’s something they need to do.” 

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles with his beautiful wife, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.