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Deadly addiction: Neither family, brains nor means can prevent heroin’s wicked grip

For most of his professional life, the doctor treated and researched substance abuse. He knew the impacts of different types on the brain and the treatment options. He was the expert the newspapers called when meth invaded Iowa.

But the college student he couldn’t save will haunt him forever.

The kid was smart, funny, athletic. He took Advanced Placement classes. A longtime friend described him as “one of the most unique, fun-loving and genuinely caring people I have ever met.” His mother called her only child “tender-hearted, unselfish.”

Lucas Weis, the heroin addict, was the son of Dr. Dennis Weis, the addiction specialist. Lucas was 21, just months shy of graduating from the University of Iowa, when his parents found him dead from an overdose in his suburban childhood bedroom. It was Christmas Eve 2014.

Until two years ago, Dennis was medical director at Powell Chemical Dependency Center in Des Moines. His wife, Kim, is a nurse. That devoted parents with an advanced understanding of drug abuse were unable to stop their child from using speaks to both the lethality of today’s opioids and the stubbornness of addiction.

“We said everything to Lucas,” Dennis said. They lectured, yelled, pleaded, used ultimatums, interventions and drug screens. Kim says it got to the point where the constant arguing was interfering with her relationship not just with Lucas but with Dennis as well. They admitted Lucas to treatment multiple times, including residential care, from which he was released shortly before his death.

The Weises shared their story as the Iowa Legislature debated a bill to legalize possession and use of the opioid antagonist Naloxone so that a first responder can administer it immediately without liability to save an overdose victim’s life. That was the week before President Obama announced a set of initiatives to expand addiction treatment and increase coverage for substance-abuse programs.

In February, the president also proposed spending $1.1 billion to address the problem.

Lucas was more susceptible to addiction than the average kid because of a family history of chemical dependency.

“It’s a genetic thing,” said Dennis, noting some people can get addicted with as little as one use. “Certainly with two or three uses, it’s hard to turn back.”

Lucas’ drug abuse began in high school with marijuana and a synthetic form called K2. His parents sent him to outpatient treatment. He also tried heroin then, although they learned of that only when he was a senior at the University of Iowa. His college roommate emailed them about it. They went to his house and found him hiding outside the back door, high. There were syringes on the floor.

“I had never been so scared in my life,” Kim said.

Despite resistance, they got Lucas into a residential treatment center.

“For the first time in a long time, I slept well,” Kim said. “I knew he was safe.”

There had been signs of trouble. He’d cancel their planned visits. He took things – bicycles, electronics – from home, to hawk for drug money. Lucas would quickly run through whatever he earned from a part-time dishwashing job and then ask his parents for help.

One time, after they had loaned him a car for a month, he called to say police had impounded it after he lent it to a friend to take his girlfriend to the hospital. When the Weises went to claim it, they found it “trashed” inside, with razor blades and receipts for syringes.

Lucas eventually conceded only that the friend had taken the car to buy pot. The Weises again got Lucas into outpatient treatment, where he was regularly drug-tested. They were confident if a test came back positive, they’d know. They later learned he was using someone else’s urine, delivered through a fake penis, so even a counselor watching him urinate into a cup could be fooled.

There were other anomalies: Lucas would wear a long-sleeve shirt on a hot day, at first saying it was for work, then that the needle tracks were from selling his plasma. His father says a week didn’t seem to pass without some crisis.

Then they learned from a counselor at the outpatient treatment center that his drug tests had come back positive for opiates a few times before the roommate contacted them. But nothing was said until then.

“It made me feel like it didn’t matter to them,” Kim said. “He was just another college kid.” And that’s even though Lucas’ father was well-known in the treatment community.

Lucas spent 30 days at the treatment center. After his release, over Thanksgiving, he wrote friends that he had developed problems with marijuana, heroin, alcohol, cocaine and benzodiazepines. Back home, he went to family counseling with his parents. They had a Christmas dinner on Dec. 23. A picture taken that night shows him smiling with younger relatives. Later he went out to see a friend.

The next morning, his parents found his body on the floor of his bedroom. They found texts on his phone indicating a drug buy. A needle and spoon were under the bed.

In her grief, his mother has asked herself if there was something she should have seen or done to save him – even, she said tearfully, “something I did to make him start using drugs.”

But Lucas made it clear in a letter to his parents the year before, after an arrest for dealing marijuana, that there wasn’t.

“What I want you to know is that you guys have been the best parents imaginable,” he wrote, “and this was all me.”

Lucas was one of 264 people to die of a heroin overdose in Iowa in 2014. Every day, 129 people die from drugs in America, the vast majority from opioids, according to a recent ABC “20/20” program. Overdose deaths from opioids are the leading cause of unintentional death in the country. In Erie County, for example, heroin and opiate overdoses are on track to kill 570 residents by the end of this year.

Dennis says opioids now make up 15 to 20 percent of the chemical dependency problem. He says for people in their teens and 20s, the addiction sometimes starts with prescription pain medications such as hydrocodone and oxycodone, now found in many family medicine cabinets. Then they move on to cheap, impure street-variety heroin, which is more dangerous.

Heroin doesn’t cause cirrhosis of the liver, like extended alcohol abuse can. It doesn’t cause tissue or cell damage. An autopsy showed Lucas’ organs were healthy. It makes you stop breathing.

“Nothing else kills you that fast,” Dennis said.

He wants people to know: “This is no longer an inner-city problem. It is growing massively in middle-income, upper-income and affluent families. The addiction is so powerful, it doesn’t matter who you are.”

The Weises believe the heroin epidemic needs to be viewed primarily from a treatment rather than a criminal perspective. That requires suspending moral judgment.

Kim has learned through Alcoholics Anonymous how tough addictions are to shake.

“I feel so horrible because I was so hard on him,” she said of her son, “because I felt it should be so much easier to quit than it was.”

It has been 16 months since Lucas died. The Weises still live in the same home. There are plaques and pictures of their son all over. Kim visits his grave every day and says not a minute goes by that she doesn’t think of him.

“He was perfect,” she said, “except for that damn heroin.”