13 investigates ‘Russian roulette’ for fentanyl junkies

Justin Mowell experienced a sense of isolation and neglect. He was at a loss on how to manage his emotions after his beloved dog was hit and killed. Mowell recounted his experience of waking up in the parking lot after taking the usual amount of fentanyl. He had passed out, suffered from seizures, and realized he had overdosed.

If any of his friends were to experience such a situation, Mowell stated that he would either dial 911 or administer Narcan, a medication commonly used to counteract opioid overdoses. However, he found himself alone, with no one by his side.

Upon waking up, Mowell found himself surrounded by police officers from Galveston County Sheriff’s department. He was completely clueless about what had happened. To his dismay, when he asked his friends present there if he could stay with them, nobody came forward to offer him help. This left Mowell feeling dejected and vulnerable. However, he later realized that he was not in the right frame of mind at that time and probably would not have let himself stay with anyone either.

Mowell admitted that he had overdosed on illegal drugs before. However, the feelings of abandonment he experienced during his most recent overdose prompted him to seek help and go to rehab. When Mowell was 34 days sober at Kemah Palms Recovery, he spoke with 13 Investigates in September.

Mowell admitted to seeking out fentanyl despite its lethal potential because he found the high to be superior to any other substance he had tried before. He also noted that the lows following the high were quicker to set in. Mowell described withdrawing as an excruciating experience that made their skin crawl and gave the sensation of something crawling beneath the surface. They even admitted to losing control of their bodily functions. The lack of sleep only intensified the desire to use drugs again, creating a vicious cycle of addiction and withdrawal.

According to Daniel Comeaux, the special agent in charge of the Houston Division of the Drug Enforcement Administration, it’s concerning to hear that certain individuals struggling with addiction are actively searching for the dangerous and highly addictive substance.

Comeaux expressed concern, stating, “Essentially what you’re telling me is this gentleman is willing to play Russian roulette with his life.” According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, fentanyl was responsible for 45% of all drug-related deaths statewide.

According to reports from the state, the number of deaths related to fentanyl has been on a steady rise over the past five years, with a recorded 2,189 deaths in 2022. Shockingly, this year alone, 841 Texans have already lost their lives due to fentanyl poisoning.

According to the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, fentanyl-related deaths in Harris County claimed the lives of 583 individuals, with the youngest victim being a mere 11 years old. According to Comeaux, the production of fentanyl is relatively easier than other drugs such as marijuana due to its manmade nature. According to the DEA, most of the deaths they investigate occur due to the misconception that an individual is consuming a specific drug, without realizing that it also contains fentanyl.

According to Comeaux, the percentage of counterfeit pills seized by the DEA that contain fentanyl has significantly increased. In the previous year, only 40% of the fake pills had traces of the lethal drug, but now, a staggering 70% of them have been found to be laced with fentanyl.

According to Comeaux, many cartels are manufacturing pills in Mexico and distributing them across the United States. However, the issue goes beyond just the cartels. In the Houston area, for example, there are gang members and individuals on the street who are producing their own pills without any regulation. This creates a significant problem as people are taking these pills without any knowledge of their contents, leading to overdoses. As Comeaux explained, it is concerning that citizens are taking pills made by an individual in their garage with no oversight or quality control.

According to him, the DEA has collaborated with various law enforcement agencies, including police departments, sheriff’s offices, and district attorneys’ offices, in the region. They are currently focusing on 20 ongoing cases in the Houston area, aiming to apprehend fentanyl dealers who are responsible for causing fatalities.

According to Comeaux, the ultimate goal is to trace the pill’s origin and identify the person who sold it to the victim. The investigation aims to uncover the source of the drug supply and hold everyone involved accountable for the death. “We will leave no stone unturned and track down every single link in the chain, ensuring that everyone associated with this tragedy is brought to justice,” he added.

When Mowell was just 23 years old, he tried fentanyl for the first time in the form of a back patch. Before long, he became so dependent on it that he would experience withdrawal symptoms if he wasn’t wearing one.

According to Mowell, he would go to any extent to satisfy his addiction. He resorted to stealing things and exchanging them for money at the store. He even went ahead and pawned his parents’ belongings whenever they asked him to look after their house.

Mowell admitted, “I had no qualms about the possibility of it being fatal. All I craved was the feeling of being high. Whenever I chewed it up, it would instantly make me feel numb and take away every emotion that I had. I was incapable of handling regular emotions, so I became addicted to something that would make me feel nothing.”

At Kemah Palms Recovery, equine therapy is just one of the ways that Daniel Scott, the Director of Operations, helps clients manage the challenging emotions that arise during the recovery process.

Scott believes that connecting with animals can be much easier than connecting with other people. Many individuals who visit him have experienced some form of trauma related to human interaction. He notes that humans can be unkind to one another, which makes it challenging to form relationships. However, having an animal around can help break down these barriers and create a safe and comfortable space for people to connect.

According to Mowell, his journey towards recovery has enabled him to confront the challenging aspects of his past. For instance, he has finally begun to grieve for his friends who succumbed to drug overdose. However, despite the progress he has made, he admits that there are still moments when he feels overwhelmed by anger. Mowell is aware that maintaining sobriety will require a lifetime of dedication and hard work.

Mowell acknowledged that she will always have the tendency to fall back into addiction. She understands that the key to keeping this tendency in check is to consistently work on her recovery program. Mowell hopes that those who are struggling with drug addiction would be brave enough to seek help and realize that they can overcome it. She encourages everyone to believe that no matter how difficult it may seem, getting clean is possible, as she herself was able to achieve it.

During our recent encounter with Mowell, we learned that he had been to rehab before. Unfortunately, his previous attempt only lasted for a week and a half before he relapsed. Mowell experienced a close brush with both the law and death within just two days of returning to the streets. This harrowing experience prompted him to realize that the individuals he had considered his friends were too consumed with their own addiction struggles to offer true friendship.

Mowell shared how he once sold his shoes for drug money and had to walk barefoot one night. However, he managed to make his way back to the rehab facility where he spent the night outside until he could be admitted the following morning.

Mowell expressed his gratitude towards the people who allowed him to sleep on the side of the building. He was overwhelmed by their kindness and felt blessed to have a safe place to rest instead of wandering on the streets of Kemah and getting arrested. He shared that this act of kindness touched his heart deeply. Mowell further added that when he finally got into detox, it was a huge relief for him, and he felt like a heavy burden had been lifted off of his chest.

According to Scott, approximately half of his clients are addicted to fentanyl. However, due to the prevalence of fentanyl-laced drugs, he believes that some of his clients may believe they are addicted to heroin or meth, when in reality, they are also struggling with fentanyl addiction.

Clients can undergo a successful detox at his recovery facility, which boasts of 10 beds and a 24-hour nursing staff.

According to Scott, the trend of partying and experimenting with drugs among young people was once less risky. However, he now warns that due to the possibility of lethal doses of fentanyl being present in anything, partying has become a hazardous activity.

According to him, everything has changed with the influx of dangerous substances in the market. “I don’t believe anything is secure anymore,” he stated. “It’s finding its way into cocaine, methamphetamines, and even pressed pills. The thought of something appearing identical to what you’re accustomed to seeing, from the color to the shape to the markings, is terrifying, and it could be fatal without your knowledge.”

According to Comeaux, it is crucial not to ingest any pill that has not been prescribed by a medical professional or legitimately obtained from a pharmacy. This is especially important because fake pills containing fentanyl are becoming increasingly similar in appearance to authentic medication.

He cautioned, “Taking just one pill can be lethal. A single mistake can cost you your life, and your loved ones will never see you again. It’s not worth the risk.”

According to Scott, the drug’s impact is widespread and affects individuals from all walks of life, irrespective of their race, gender, education level, or economic status. Additionally, he noted that fentanyl addiction comes with a significant social stigma, and due to the rapid onset of withdrawal symptoms, it can be a daunting prospect for addicts to seek help.

According to Scott, individuals who have gone through withdrawal are often fearful of experiencing it again, almost to the point of having PTSD. This fear can lead to a loss of logic and intelligence, making the idea of getting clean seem unachievable.

According to Mowell, every individual has their own version of hitting rock bottom. In his case, it was the realization of being 34 years old with no car, no credit score, no educational qualifications, and no place to call home.

“He said that he couldn’t manage his life and often found himself envious of those who were successful. He simply wanted to be normal,” he expressed.

Earlier this year, Mowell found himself lying in a parking lot, abandoned and alone, after overdosing on fentanyl. Despite the severity of his situation, Mowell’s numbness prevented him from feeling anything, even hope for a better future.

He has completed over two months of sobriety and is currently residing in a sober living facility. He has overcome his fear of experiencing emotions and is embracing every moment of his recovery journey.

Mowell expressed her satisfaction, stating that she feels amazing. According to her, she has never felt this good before in her entire life. She feels empowered and confident, believing that she can achieve anything she sets her mind to. Mowell further elaborated that things she once thought were impossible are now within her reach, and this realization is exhilarating.

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