King shares personal connection to opioid crisis, need for patient-first outlook

Timothy King, author of Addiction Nation and Senior Fellow for Clergy for a New Drug Policy, gives his presentation as part of the Interfaith Lecture Series Thursday in the Hall of Philosophy. Carrie Legg/Staff Photographer

Arden Ryan
contributing writer

Timothy King starts his story with pain and ends it with hope. 

At age 25, he was suffering from acute necrotizing pancreatitis, causing a type of pain he finds nearly impossible to describe. He spent nine months in the hospital receiving nourishment through a long-term IV line in his arm. When he finally went home, he realized he was addicted to the opioids that had gotten him through his torturous experience.

In his lecture at 2 p.m. Thursday in the Hall of Philosophy, part of the Interfaith Lecture Series theme on “Health and Faith: Considering the Center of Wellbeing” in partnership with Interfaith America, King shared that he knows his story is not unique. Drug addictions, many beginning in hospital beds as his did, have led to the death of over 1 million people since the year he was born, 1984.

“Our treatment system is broken,” said King, who is an author and senior fellow at Clergy for a New Drug Policy. Addicts are criminalized, and human health is not being prioritized. America must “find innovative solutions to improve quality of life,” he said, or the crisis will continue to worsen.

While hospitalized, racked with what he described as an “odyssey of medical complications,” King found respite from the pain in liquid morphine. He has not forgotten the feeling of the “blessed analgesic.”

There is a true Balm of Gilead, he said, and it comes as a liquid, which — while not healing the source of the pain — can make it tolerable and bring ease to tortured bodies. In opioids, King had found “the best lover (he) could ask for,” but one that would come to spurn him.

It was not until he left the hospital, and the “dust finally settled” on his long physical recovery, that he found a whole new journey of struggle before him, against the pain-relieving medication that helped keep him alive. 

During his addiction and recovery, King was reminded that the relief provided by opioids — drugs derived from the opium poppy — is not everlasting.

“The grass does wither, and the flower fades, and the love of the poppy does not endure forever,” King said.

Opium has been cultivated by humans for millennia, King said, since ancient peoples first tasted the milk of the poppy plant. In the body, the drug connects neuroreceptors, inducing surges of pain-preventing endorphins. Used since early civilization, the brain-altering chemicals in opioids are akin to the easing and life-providing nature of milk, which as King said “has given comfort from birth to death since the early days of our species.”

The reason dairy is so hard to give up and such a comfort to humans, King explained, is because milk contains opioid peptides, binding to the same neuroreceptors as opioids. The chemical coming from the poppy plant bears a strong resemblance to the chemical “our bodies produce to bond to one another,” King said.

“The challenges we face, the threat we face, from drugs today is not because they are so foreign to us, but because of how intimate they are to us,” King said. The earliest humans were familiar with opiates, learning the power of the poppy in hand with its danger. They called such plants sacred for their potent abilities.

“Our ancestors knew they had stolen fire from the gods that could warm or scorch, heal or destroy,” King said. Humans are no strangers to opiates, but the destruction they have caused in recent decades is anomalous, a threat that continues to rise.

Opium can give the user a strong sense that “all is right with the world,” King said, bringing ease to those unsure of their place in society. Teenagers have turned to its use in pill form among friends for stress relief, although they have recently been using it less.

Teenage drug use is at its lowest point in recorded history, King said. But despite that fact, teen overdose deaths are soaring, challenging the narrative that the skyrocketing national rates are due to America’s “moral and societal decline.” Many have attributed poor education and harmful media to the surge in deaths, but King said that doesn’t tell the full story.

In 1984, there were 1.3 overdose deaths per 100,000 Americans, he said. Now, the number is 28.3 deaths per 100,000, a jump of over 2,000% in 40 years’ time. So frequent are drug fatalities, he said, that the leading cause of death for those ages 18 to 45 is a fentanyl overdose.

“How did this Promethean fire escape our grasp and burn through our country in such a blaze?” King asked.

“Participation in a faith community is a protective factor against future substance use issues,” King said. People with drug problems within faith communities are “more likely to have the social support needed to find recovery” than those without. “Loneliness drives this epidemic.”

Many place blame for the overdose crisis squarely on the shoulders of pain medication pharmaceutical manufacturer Purdue Pharma, but King said that’s not the whole story. The crisis didn’t start with them — it started in the 1970s at the onset of the war on drugs.

“We have to look at the numbers if we want to understand what is driving overdoses,” King said, and the simple reason is that “the drug supply in the United States today is more toxic than it has ever been before,” caused by what King called the “iron law of prohibition.”

The phrase, coined in 1986 by cannabis activist Richard Cowan, posits that as enforcement against drug trafficking tightens, the drugs themselves become more potent, King said. Smuggling highly concentrated, lab-synthesized fentanyl, sometimes shipping it right through the mail, is far easier for cartels than larger quantities of diluted drugs.

The choking off of supply led the massively increased number of opioid users to heroin, which was unsafe and street-supplied. That heroin proved “far more dangerous with every dose, taking more lives every day” than the high-quality and dangerous  manufactured opiates.

“Crackdowns in heroin without addressing the demand (for quality opiates) incentivized cartels” to move from farmed and processed poppies to illicit fentanyl, a drug “50 to 100 times more potent than morphine,” King said. Fentanyl has become the analgesic of choice for women during childbirth because it leaves the body rapidly and, King said, is unlikely to cause complications.

“The difference between fentanyl helping usher life into this world and ushering life out of it is (now) a matter of potency, a matter of corruption of the quality of the drug.”

The logic of the war on drugs, and the current solution being implemented to combat overdoses in America, is fundamentally flawed, King said.

“Instead of prioritizing human flourishing and asking, ‘What do we do now that someone’s addicted? What’s the best way to make sure that they stay alive while we can get them the help and support that they need?,’ we go after the substance itself,” he said.

“A war on drugs is never actually a war on the drug,” he said, but on the people who use it, a war that is “coming at the cost of a million lives.” It is “a war waged against our own people,” and is causing the severe drug crisis in America.

While wrestling with the depths of the drug dependence that began in his hospital bed, King said he felt his self-control slipping away. When he was told by his doctor that he had an addiction, he heard it as, “You’re a bad person.” The next words out of his doctor’s mouth, however, were, “You didn’t do anything wrong.”

King said he was treated not as a criminal, but as a person in pain, the frame of mind to which he believes America needs to shift. His doctor helped him reorient his horizon, think into the future, elicit all the good he wanted to do with his life, and find the motivation for change.

“This is a public health issue,” he said. The culture needs to go “first to compassion and grace, not to punishment.” The scourge of addiction in America now, King said, is a collective “moral failing … of our society, our politics, of a broken medical system that has failed the most vulnerable among us.”

Personal responsibility, people’s choices and consequences are one thing, he said, but “the people in power who created the system we have today should be considered first.” America needs to “invest in effective harm reduction strategies,” recognize the trauma at the heart of many substance abuse issues, and look beyond traditional paths for new recovery solutions.

“Force and violence and death do not have the final word, and it is by faith that we see a different way,” King said. “It is with hope we move forward, and it is through love we are transformed, and we will transform this world.”


The author Arden Ryan

Summer 2022 marks Arden’s sixth season working for the Daily. A longtime Chautauquan, he is excited to continue supervising the Daily’s newsies. Following his editorial debut last season, Arden plans to write more articles this summer. He is an incoming freshman at Carnegie Mellon University, and he is interested in studying English and international relations. If he’s not around the Daily office, Arden can be found reading, swimming or sailing.