LOS ANGELES — With over 700,000 drug users in Los Angeles, the city is classified as a high-intensity drug zone, and the problem has only gotten bigger during the pandemic. According to L.A. County, fentanyl-related deaths increased 101% from 2019 to 2020, and the Association of American Medical Colleges is attributing this rise to the pandemic.
Strike Out Against Drugs is a nonprofit organization hoping to use drug use in the city. One volunteer, Rodney Wikel, recently lost his wife to the epidemic.
"The opioid addiction is real. It took a mother, a grandmother, and turned her into an addict," Wikel said.
He said his wife only started taking pills to deal with pain, which quickly escalated into heroin addiction. She sadly lost her life to an accidental overdose in January. Wikel and his family were left with so many questions.
"I just felt so helpless. Why didn't I see it?" Wikel said.
But Wikel never expected this from his wife. He always thought he would be the one to die at the hands of drugs. Wikel has been an addict his whole life. He went to prison in 2005 and spent most of that time continuing his drug use. But four years ago, he got sober and focused on a new life after his release in 2019.
So, now he uses his wife's passing and his struggles with addiction to help others. After prison, he moved into the Beacon of Hope Sober Living Home to stay on track, where he got introduced to Strike Out Against Drugs.
"My wife OD-ing really cemented my determination and my will to fight. We are trying to save lives," Wikel said.
CEO of the organization David Sanchez also was in and out of prison and an addict for 40 years. He made it his life's mission to help others. Sanchez and his team hand out flyers on the street, choosing Koreatown because it is a prominent area where drug abuse has risen.
"The drug pandemic is sweeping our communities. It has our cities tied in a knot. We want to be able to loosen that knot a little bit. We want to help people who want help but don't know how to get help," Sanchez said.
He said the uneasiness, loneliness, and destruction from the pandemic are only increasing drug use. According to L.A. County Department of Health, opioid-related overdose deaths skyrocketed in 2020 by the thousands.
"Everybody's dying. People have family members dying around them. It's compelling them to use more drugs. There's no pill or vaccination shot to cure our addiction," Sanchez said.
The CDC also says 40% of Americans are experiencing mental health consequences due to the pandemic.
Wikel said he hopes his story and his pain will deter others from using drugs to cope.
"It gets into everything. It destroys lives. When my wife overdosed, it destroyed my family," Wikel said.
If you or a loved one needs help, please visit their website to learn more.