Retired Adm. James “Sandy” Winnefeld ran the most powerful military on Earth, but said in a poignant essay for The Atlantic that he was powerless to save his son from opioid addiction.
Winnefeld’s 19-year-old son, Jonathan, was found dead of an apparent heroin overdose in his University of Denver dorm on Sept. 7.
Jonathan was a freshman at the school and had long struggled with substance abuse, beginning with alcohol “to bring himself down from the Adderall a doctor had prescribed him, based on a misdiagnosis of attention deficit disorder,” Winnefeld wrote. By eighth grade, the talented athlete was consuming larger quantities of alcohol, and then self-medicating with marijuana. “Next came Xanax and, eventually, heroin.”
Winnefeld described his son as “one of several victims of a fentanyl-laden batch of heroin that had spread through the Denver area that week” and appealed to Denver police to arrest and prosecute the dealer who sold to his son.
The day after Jonathan was found dead, police found Eric Chase Bolling, 19, dead in an apartment near the University of Colorado. The Boulder County coroner said his death was the result of an accidental overdose of the combination of cocaine and fentanyl. Bolling was the son of former Fox News personality Eric Bolling.
Though Winnefeld acknowledged many gateways to opioid addition, he worried especially about the impact of today’s high-potency marijuana strains on young brains, suggesting that perhaps the age for legal consumption of marijuana should be raised to 25, when the brain has fully matured.
Winnefeld, retired four-star Navy admiral who served as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2011-15, also lamented the inadequacy of care for his son under the military’s Tricare system. The insurance program did not cover Jonathan’s dual diagnosis of depression/anxiety and addiction. His family, he said, “spent more than the equivalent of four years’ tuition at a private college for 15 months of treatment for Jonathan, a sum that would be well beyond the reach of most American families.”
He also suggested that instead of tolerating open-air drug markets — like the one Jonathan had to pass when he was taking an EMT course in the year after his in-patient treatment — “we would do well to develop ‘safe-use zones’ like those in Portugal and parts of British Columbia. These areas not only dramatically reduce opioid overdoses (because trained users of the overdose-reversing drug naloxone can be right on the scene), they can offer treatment to addicts who are ready to seek help.”
(The city of Denver is contemplating a safe-injection site, as are Seattle and San Francisco.)
He noted that drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death for Americans younger than 50. And he issued a call to arms, “like the one that led to our nation’s dramatic decrease in cigarette usage, or to the effective Mothers Against Drunk Driving movement.
“There are reasons to hope that public awareness of the opioid epidemic is finally beginning to catch up with the facts on the ground,” he wrote, “but its defeat will only be possible through a concerted effort that includes full-spectrum prevention, stronger prescription-drug controls, more-robust law enforcement, and far more access to quality treatment.”
Read the full essay at The Atlantic.
James Winnefeld is co-chair of SAFEProject.us, which will work to reverse the opioid epidemic.