Michael Roberts: I Support Safe Consumption Because I Don’t Want Other Families to Lose Their Children

This is part 3 in a series of interviews with advocates on both sides of the safe-consumption issue.

Earlier this week, a coalition of public health experts and people who have lost loved ones to overdoses announced that they are suing to block Initiative 27, which would ban supervised drug consumption sites throughout King County, on the grounds that public health decisions are outside the scope of the initiative process. The group, called Protect Public Health, argues in their lawsuit that under state law, King County and its public health department are responsible for making public-health policy decisions for the county, and “[i]t would be antithetical to this scheme to allow citizens to delay or override urgent action on a public health crisis merely by raising sufficient funds to qualify a referendum or initiative.” (You can read the full complaint here.)

Last week, the King County Elections Department confirmed that initiative supporters had collected enough signatures to qualify for the February 2018 ballot.

With safe consumption very much in the news this week, I thought it would be a good time to hear from some advocates on both sides of the safe consumption issue.

This final installment features Michael Roberts, the cofounder of Amber’s HOPE, an addiction awareness and prevention organization named after his daughter, Amber Roberts, who died of a heroin overdose at just 19. Since his daughter’s death, Roberts, who is in recovery himself, has worked to raise awareness of the opiate epidemic and promote substance use disorder prevention. Roberts says he supports safe consumption sites not only because they save lives, but because they provide connections to nonjudgmental treatment and help for people who may be filled with shame and self-loathing because of their substance use. I talked to Roberts by phone last month, just after the second anniversary of his daughter’s death.

Here’s Roberts:

My daughter Amber passed away two years ago. She was 19 and she was at her mom’s house, in her bedroom, and her mom found her in the morning.

When you overdose from heroin, what a lot of people don’t know is you don’t really overdose on one drug. We got the tox reports and there was alcohol and ecstasy along with opiates. But heroin is the one that puts you to sleep.

“This was the girl who I still had to take to the doctor to get shots because she hated needles so much.”

We knew for sure she was doing heroin two weeks before she passed. My birthday’s in June, and she always made time to spend the day with me or do something with me. And when she changed plans at the last minute, to me, that was a red flag. She had recently broken up with her boyfriend, who was one of her best friends since the 7th grade, and I asked her why. She said he was too smothering. Well, he goes to college in Oregon. He plays football. He’s not around. So that was another red flag.

She started smoking pot around junior high, and doing ecstasy and drinking. I knew there was a trend there, so I always kept an eye on it. We always had what we thought was an open communication about drugs and alcohol. I was planning on getting her into detox and into rehab. I’ve been to rehab three times myself, and I’ve always been an advocate for recovery.

The first time I went was in 2000, and it was about 50-50 opiate-related and alcohol-related. Then I went in 2009 and it was like 70 opiate-related and alcohol was the minority. And talking to all these kids that were like a bunch of sports players that got injured—the next thing you know, they’re shooting heroin.

She loved to go to EDM shows and raves. And so she went to Vegas with all of her friends the weekend she passed, and I was planning on taking her to rehab when she got back from Vegas. By now, we knew she was doing heroin. One of her friends finally messaged her mom and said Amber told them. This was the girl who I still had to take to the doctor to get shots because she hated needles so much. So she goes to Paradiso on Friday, and by Saturday she’s calling her mom asking her to come pick her up at the Gorge because she was sick and wanted to come home.

“Sometimes we feel lucky compared to all these other parents who were just going through the struggle of addiction for years and years and years. But we would take that over anything. At least there’s a chance to save them.”

She texted me at midnight that night from her mom’s house to tell me she was fine, and probably died right after.

We found out after she passed that she first tried heroin in February of that year and she died five months later. Sometimes we feel lucky compared to all these other parents who were just going through the struggle of addiction for years and years and years. But we would take that over anything. At least there’s a chance to save them.

Amber was the most loyal person you could ever want as a friend. One of her friends told a story about her. It was like 3 in the morning and she had had a bad day. Amber lives up in Snoqualmie and this girl lives in Lynnwood, and Amber left and got her some candy and took it to her at 4 in the morning. Her laugh was indescribable. She had a great work ethic. She loved her family, her brothers. It was just one of those drugs we never thought that she would do.

When she died—she’s my only child, and now it’s just me. So it’s one of those questions: Either I’m going to go join her now or I have to find something to fight for, just because I don’t want any other parents to feel like this. My getting involved was a way to still work with her, I guess, or keep her name alive so I don’t go crazy. Her mom and I started a heroin and opiate prevention organization called Amber’s HOPE. The premise is to speak to communities and families and just bring awareness to the fact that it’s happening. I lived in Kirkland for all of Amber’s school year, and there were at least three overdoses at her high school in one year. Growing up on the Eastside—I grew up in Issaquah—there tends to be an attitude of,  ‘Not my child’ or ‘My child would never do that.’ I really wanted to sway that view. It takes a lot of time. There’s a lot of bullshit involved in it. I tried to deal with Lake Washington [High School] and it’s like pulling teeth.

You can’t do anything until you break that stigma down. Just look at what the King County Council did with safe consumption sites. [In July, the council barred funding for safe consumption sites through the county’s general fund and prohibited funding the sites through the county’s mental illness and drug dependency tax except in cities that explicitly vote to allow them.] They got scared shitless. They just decided, ‘We’re not going to fund anything.’

Growing up on the Eastside—I grew up in Issaquah—there tends to be an attitude of,  ‘Not my child’ or ‘My child would never do that.’ I really wanted to sway that view.”

If I had the money, I would build [a safe consumption site]. It builds connections. For me, being in my community and a recovering addict. that was the biggest hurdle. You already feel like complete shit. You have no self-worth. Maybe you’ve grown up with your family calling people drunks or junkies and saying, ‘Get a job,’ being judgmental. So are you going to go to your parents or family and go, ‘I need help?’ [A safe consumption site] builds connections and it saves people’s lives. That’s the bottom line for me. Once you’ve gone through what I went through, you will do anything for someone not to go through that.

When I speak at communities around Seattle, this is the idea that scares people. They think it’s going to cause crime. But that crime is already there.

I don’t think you’re going to be able to change people’s minds who think like that. They’re set. Unless something personal happens to that person, they’re not going to change their minds. So I try and be really nonjudgmental towards those people. All I can do is tell my story and explain why I believe what I do, and if they listen, they listen, and if they don’t, they don’t. Once you get into an argument or debate, you lose all credibility, because you’re just not going to win. You just have to go, ‘Okay, imagine if that was your child? How would you feel? How would you deal with this?’  My argument to them is, it could save someone’s life. I mean really, that’s what they do.

Today, just reading the numbers coming out about overdose deaths, we’re looking at 60,000 to 70,000 for this year. It’s not going away, and there’s a lot more even in the last two years. There’s a lot more talk about it, too. It seems like now that taboo  is breaking down more and more. Two years ago. the news barely even spoke of [the opiate addiction epidemic]. Now it’s almost a daily segment, even on the local news.

This is all I work on now. It’ll be 2 in the morning and I’ll go, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ because whenever I talk about Amber, there I am reliving it again. But I don’t mind it if it helps somebody else not have to go through what we went through.

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