The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

She used to be addicted to crack cocaine. Now, she wants to help opioid abusers.

Rhonda Johnson distributes fliers advertising the "Walk 4 Recovery," outside the Eastern Market Metro station.
Rhonda Johnson distributes fliers advertising the "Walk 4 Recovery," outside the Eastern Market Metro station. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Rhonda Johnson knows addiction can turn you into a different person. How it can change your body, your life, even your name.

For years, she inhabited an alter ego named Mary. It helped keep her worlds separate.

Rhonda was the mother, the sister, the wife. Mary was the addict, the hustler, the woman who would sell a used pen off the street to get the cash she needed for her next high.

Drugs transformed her city, too.

During what Johnson calls the “Wild West days of D.C.,” she watched as crack cocaine ravaged communities and contributed to violence that led to Washington’s designation as the country’s murder capital.

“I’ve had friends who died. I know people who are locked up. I know people who are hospitalized, put in insane asylums and they have not made it back,” said Johnson, 53. “But I survived. I made it out.”

Johnson, who lives in Northeast Washington, will lead an event Saturday on the Mall aimed not at crack-cocaine addiction, but at those struggling with opioids — an epidemic ravaging communities throughout the country. The D.C. “Walk 4 Recovery” is built on the idea that people who have survived struggles with addiction and mental illnesses are equipped to help coach others through similar experiences.

“We can’t tell them not to get high. We can’t tell them not to drink. They’re going to go through what they’re going to go through,” Johnson said. “But maybe if they see us and see the struggles we went through and what we survived, maybe they won’t want to.”

Almost all of the half-dozen people on the planning committee for Saturday’s event lived through D.C.’s crack epidemic. Several were addicts themselves. Others had addicted friends or family members.

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Johnson suffers from co-occurring disorders — a label given to those who suffer from mental illness and abuse drugs or alcohol. Nearly 8 million adults in the United States have co-occurring disorders, according to 2014 data from the Department of Health and Human Services.

Johnson, a manic depressive with borderline personality disorder, spent decades addicted to drugs and alcohol, beginning with marijuana at age 8. It took nearly four decades to receive proper treatment.

She said Saturday’s walk and “stigma-free” fair will address addiction, mental health and other conditions that tend to occur simultaneously, such as homelessness, incarceration, suicide and abuse.

“If you have co-occurring disorders, it’s not the one thing, so you have an uphill journey and it’s not a one-size-fits-all recovery,” Johnson said. “When you’re addicted, you’re hiding. You’re hiding behind a mask, you’re hiding behind the drugs to mask the pain. Once I could actually figure out who I was, the real healing began.”

Crack hit the District in the mid-1980s, bringing a deluge of cheap and powerful drugs. Smoking the small, rocklike drug gives users an intense rush, a euphoric high, but it doesn’t last long. Crack users return again and again, desperate for more.

In 1986, the federal government enacted tougher sentencing guidelines for crack offenders. Three years later, President George H.W. Bush announced a renewed war on drugs, with “more prisons, more courts and more prosecutors.”

Today, national alarm over opioid abuse and addiction has led to President Trump declaring a national health crisis and diverting more funding to research and state resources.

Opioids gained traction in white suburban and rural areas where people were overdosing on prescription opiates such as Percocet and OxyContin. As prescription drugs became harder to get, some turned to heroin.

“The conversation around crack cocaine was about violence, murder, escalating crime, the quote-unquote ghetto lifestyle, people of color, and especially black people in urban areas, and that’s obviously a huge contrast to how the opioid epidemic has been addressed and how it’s played out. It’s pretty clearly racist,” said Kaitlyn Boecker, policy manager at the Drug Alliance Network. “When crack was in the news, there wasn’t a lot of sympathy or empathy. Now, what we’re seeing is an outpouring of sympathy and empathy for the opioid user.”

Johnson routinely speaks in front of federal lawmakers on the nation’s drug policies and response to the opioid epidemic. She’s usually the only person to bring up the ravages of crack cocaine, she said.

“I’m there to remind them, ‘You didn’t get the first epidemic right, so what have y’all learned?’ ” Johnson said. “Talk to survivors. Talk to the folks who lived through the crack cocaine epidemic. We are survivors: We have some experience and some solutions that can help.”

The rate of mortality among opioid abusers far exceeds that of crack addicts, even at the peak of the cocaine epidemic.

In 1988, nearly 2,300 people died of cocaine overdoses, according to federal data. In 2016, opioids — including prescription drugs, heroin and fentanyl — killed more than 42,000 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Opioid-related deaths have climbed in the District — particularly in Wards 7 and 8, where ­middle-aged black men are the most likely to succumb to the drug, according to data from the D.C. Medical Examiner’s Office. There are significantly fewer opioid- ­related deaths in the District than in Maryland or Virginia, but the city’s rate of deaths is higher than in the neighboring states.

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In 2016, the most recent year for which all three jurisdictions have data, the District reported about 34 opioid-related deaths per 100,000 residents, compared to about 31 in Maryland and 14 in Virginia, according to state data.

The District approved a law last year that would allow pharmacies to stock naloxone, a drug used to reverse opioid overdoses, and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced that the city would provide community health partners 2,500 naloxone kits in response to shortages.

First responders and other D.C. officials will be on hand Saturday to address issues such as naloxone access and overdose prevention.

District to distribute more naloxone to combat opioid overdoses

Boecker said the most valuable participants may be people like Johnson — those who lived through their own addiction battle and have come out the other side. In the rehab world, Boecker said, they’re called “peer counselors.”

“Obviously, every drug has different effects and a different pattern in how it affects your life. But being stigmatized for your drug use is a pretty universal experience. Being criminalized for your drug use is a pretty universal experience,” she said. “Being able to relate to how other people treat you, how your family treats you, how you’ve dealt with it all — that’s important.”

As of Thursday, about 200 people had registered to participate in the 2.7-mile walk, which begins at 9 a.m. near the National Museum of African American History and Culture and is meant to memorialize those who have died from substance abuse. A health fair will follow at noon, featuring more than 30 public health groups, recovery services, emergency response teams and police organizations.

“I’m not ashamed of my past or where I’ve been. Sometimes you have to go through that to get to the next level, to get to the point where you can turn around and help other folks,” Johnson said. “And, now, look around. Here we go again with another drug epidemic. If my story can help someone else, if our experiences can help even one person, then everything we went through wasn’t in vain.”

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