New Utah-based foundation aims to help recovering opiate addicts

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SALT LAKE CITY -- Opiate addiction takes a devastating toll on our communities. Behind alcoholism, opiate addiction is the largest single treated addiction in our society. But a new Utah-based charity introduced a man Wednesday morning, who was a recipient of its helps.

Mark Van Wagoner is a name many Utahns know, but you probably did not know the radio personality struggled with opiate addiction. The National Opiate Recovery Foundation (NORF) gave him a fresh start, and he told his compelling story at the Bonneville Exchange Club.

Utah County is the number one area in the country for prescription drug abuse. -NORF

Opiates like Dilaudid, Lortab, Percocet, codeine, OxyContin, morphine and heroin have a powerful pull on addicts. Van Wagoner knows how hard it can be to kick the opiates.

"Only two things can happen to an addict: prison or death," he said.

Van Wagoner got off that path with the help of the National Opiate Recovery Foundation, which raises money so addicts can stay in treatment.

Medical experts say 10 to 15 percent of the population has a genetic predisposition for addiction.

"These are not bad people, they have a bad disease; and somewhere along the line, some of them made poor choices and started abusing," said Dr. Charles Walton, vice president of medical affairs at NORF.

**2008 drug rehab statistics for Utah**
• 85% of all prisoners were linked to a drug-related crime • 80% were Caucasian • 60% were male • 18% were age 21-25 • 14% were age 26-30 Taxpayers pay $36,000 annually for incarceration of one drug addict. It costs only $7,000-10,000 a year to treat the same individual. -*NORF*
Others like Van Wagoner got hooked on painkillers after an injury or surgery. Van Wagoner took his first painkiller after surgery as a teenager. "I felt normal," he told the gathering Wednesday. "I didn't feel high. I felt normal. You're not supposed to feel that way with that kind of medication."

While he tried to control the medication, he said the medication took control of him. After years of struggle, he came clean with his family, friends and employer, and he got into treatment.

"I became me again and started loving life," he said. "And that lasted a long time, until last year at about this time."

Van Wagoner's medication stopped working, his body shut down and he went into deep depression. He lost his job and his health, and had few answers about his condition from his doctors. He ended up in the hospital, and at one point even prayed that he would die.

He was discouraged because he had not used drugs in 16 years.

"I cannot describe the amount of physical and emotional pain that my family and I endured this past year," Van Wagoner said.

Substance abuse costs Salt Lake County more than $238,000,000 every year through health care expenses, law enforcement, accidents, crime, school programs and lost productivity. -NORF

He's not alone, and many addicts end up turning to crime to fund their habit: pharmacy robberies, deadly home invasions -- community criminal fall-out from opiate drug addiction. Often, the crook is an addict in search of his next fix.

NORF president Toni Taliauli said opiate addicts now outnumber alcoholics in treatment, but funding for treatment is a major roadblock for many addicts.

NORF believes if addicts can stay in recovery they can get help; the organization finds qualified candidates in treatment to help.

Ten facilities in Utah perform treatment for opiate addiction, but many leave each year because they cannot afford it.

"There's about 300 we lose each year. If we keep half of those people, there's going to be less crime on the streets. There are going to be people getting jobs," Taliauli said.

Van Wagoner is fortunate. He discovered NORF, got help and came out of his fog.

"In recovery speak, we call that a ‘God thing.' In family, we call that a miracle," he said.

The National Opiate Recovery Foundation is on 180 S. 300 West, Suite 316, in Salt Lake City. You can call them at 801-355-3051, or toll free at 888-845-8805.


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