He wrote to me after reading Spafford's story to warn, "He and I might never have had to do these crimes if we had guaranteed access to detox and treatment on demand in King County, regardless of financial or health circumstances. Heroin addiction is back, with a vengeance, in Seattle and all points around."
This is exactly what I've heard in several interviews with local drug treatment experts this week. "Until we recognize this as a legitimate health crisis," Hemmerle says, "and offer every available resource to helping addicts break that cycle, it's only going to get worse, and you'll be writing about Cody Spafford version 2.0 for your next story."
Hemmerle himself was flirting with tragedy in the spring of 2010, he says, when he was using seven grams of heroin a day. After he was fired from his job as a bar manager, he finally took advice from a friend and called Recovery Centers of King County, hoping to be admitted to detox and treatment. "The intake lady put me on hold for about 5 minutes, then came back on the line and said, 'We're sorry, but we can't admit you with that large of a habit. Call us back when you can get down to 2 or 3 grams a day and maybe we'll let you in,'" he remembers.
"I lost it. I called that woman every name I could think of...and after she hung up on me I was still cursing into the phone. So, I decided that if they didn't want to give me a bed, I would find a place to lay down on my own."
So he robbed a Key Bank in North Seattle where he'd previously banked, by handing a note to the teller. He says he was hoping, contrary to snarky media reports at the time, that he'd be recognized, caught, and sent to jail. He'd already served two prison sentences for LSD conspiracy and burglary. "I WANTED to go back to prison," Hemmerle says. Seattle police caught up with and arrested him while he was sitting in his car in a Northgate QFC parking lot.
Fast forward to the present day: Besides studying, Hemmerle says he volunteers with ex-cons at Post Prison Education, "helping them get their financial aid set up so that they can hopefully get out and stay out of our incredibly overcrowded prisons."
So, what about the policy issues raised by his experience? For one thing, staffers at Recovery Centers of King County confirmed with me that they accept heroin addicts doing 3 grams per day and below—and that Hemmerle's experience with them is totally plausible.
For another, when Hemmerle was treated for a previous bout of heroin addiction at RCKC in 2005, he emerged and was provided 90 days of subsidized housing, a bus pass, and food stamps in order to help him get back on his feet. "As long as you stayed clean, you had a roof on your head," he told me. "And you were able to get back into society."
"Now," he says, "they just pay for your detox and treatment, and then you’re done."
As it turns out, the state legislature cut the budget for Alcoholism and Drug Addiction Treatment and Support Act (ADATSA) program in 2012, meaning "clean, sober housing for folks right now is severely lacking," according to Jim Vollendroff, who directs King County's Mental Health and Substance Abuse Division. "It was a great program."
Counties across Washington are banding together and meeting with state officials to find a way to use federal block grants to make up for the loss of ADATSA, and Vollendroff says they hope to have a workable proposal to give to the Inslee administration hashed out by June. "What we need is the ability to provide more housing and education and vocational training and those kinds of things," Vollendroff says. "If we can provide a roof, a job, and treatment simultaneously, we'll have better outcomes."
The county's latest numbers on heroin usage are from two years ago, but Vollendroff says, "I can tell you anecdotally from providers—they're all saying the same thing. We've got more young people using heroin and it's a major problem." And a counselor at RCKC, who asked to remain anonymous, told me, "It’s been in the past year that it’s just taken off. And the demographic is just...they’re young kids."