Joel Wilson took martial arts starting when he was 7, taking part in competitions until he was 15. When he was a teenager, he and his friends talked about how harmless pot was. At 17, Joel Wilson graduated from North Point High School where he was in the welding career and technology education (CTE) program. When he was 18, he stole prescription pain medication from a close family member who was recovering from heart surgery.
He went to church and went to work, he chopped firewood for family and friends who weren’t able to, he visited his grandparents. He nodded off while driving and rear-ended a car that was traveling in front of him, he went to a support group for drug users, he fought against going to rehab.
Joel Wilson, right, celebrated his 2010 graduation from North Point High School with his mom, Stacey.
His parents found his body on Valentine’s Day morning in 2017 when he didn’t come downstairs to go to work with his father, Fred. Joel was a lot of things — a son, brother, addict, a hard worker. He had his lunch packed the night before.
He was 23, dead of an overdose. His parents, Fred and Stacey, attempted to perform CPR, it didn’t work. When police showed up at the Wilson house in Waldorf, some officers had to leave. They knew Joel. They had gone to school with him, maybe partied with him when they were younger.
Joel Wilson had been swept up in the opioid storm currently battering the country, claiming victims from every walk of life.
“Don’t think it’s kids from bad families who are doing this, because it’s not,” Stacey said.
“If you don’t want to help yourself or have somebody help you, then you’re going to die,” Fred said. “This a death sentence.”
Joel Wilson grew up practicing martial arts and bowling. He died of an opioid overdose when he was 23.
From January to September 2018, there were 1,648 accidental or undetermined opioid-related deaths in Maryland. Of those deaths, 654 were attributed to heroin and 1,449 were caused by the ingestion of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, according to reports from the Maryland Department of Health.
In Charles County, eight people died of heroin-related deaths from January to September 2018, a decrease of five from the 13 deaths in the same time span in 2017. Fentanyl-related deaths in the first nine months of 2018 stood at 10, a decrease of seven when compared to the 17 that occurred in the same time frame in 2017. The counts for 2018 are not yet available.
Fentanyl and carfentanil are the substances in the spotlight these days. It was probably fentanyl that killed Joel Wilson. Maybe it was carfentanil, a tranquilizing agent used on large mammals like a hippopotamus or elephants. Carfentanil is a synthetic opioid so dangerous that can kill or damage a person who simply touches it. Someone attempting to rouse a person who is OD’ing on carfentanil with traditional mouth-to-mouth runs the risk of overdosing, possibly dying too. The DEA reports carfentanil is 10,000 times more potent than morphine, and 100 times more potent than fentanyl. Fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin.
“Fentanyl, carfentanil, that stuff is deadly,” Fred Wilson said.
Joel Wilson, left, had many close friends, including Josh Bowen who was away at college when Joel died.
The Wilsons want other parents and families to heed the warning signs. Fred believes marijuana is a gateway drug to harder substances. Once Joel started smoking pot, he had to progress, he had to find stronger substances. He also started smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol in an attempt to “mask” his drug use, the Wilsons said. He could blame an altered state to imbibing, not snorting heroin. That’s another thing. Fred Wilson didn’t even know that heroin could be snorted or smoked. Addicts are known thieves, but Joel didn’t seem to steal from anyone, yet his parents found pawn tickets for his belongings that could fetch enough cash. “If you have a full-time job and you never have money? Where’s the money going,” Fred said.
“As parents … we didn’t understand. The attitude we had was ‘just stop,’” Stacey said. “We didn’t realize that they can’t. It’s almost like the air you breathe once you’re on it.”
Rehab could work, but it’s a financial burden that many are not able shoulder. Health insurance may cover a 30-day stay in a drug rehabilitation center. “It’s not long enough to off of the drugs,” Fred said. “Thirty days will get you sober. It takes years [to recover from a heroin addiction]. The drug changes the way your mind works.”
The Wilsons are well versed in the signs of drug use now. They advocate for every house, business and school to stock Narcan, a nasal spray that can reverse an opioid overdose.
It could save a life, Fred said. When he died, Joel was a single, 23-year-old guy. He had no children and was in a newish relationship. “The legacy dies,” Fred said. Joel has an older brother who might one day have children, but Joel’s line is gone, Stacey said.
The Wilsons advocate for all homes, businesses and schools to have Narcan on hand to help in case of an opioid overdose in adults and children.
“We have a major, major problem in Charles County with opioid and heroin addiction and overdose,” said Charles County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ashley Burroughs in “Playing with Fire,” a documentary produced by Parents Affected by Addiction. “It’s exploded on us rapidly and as of now, it doesn’t appear there’s any end of sight.”
The Charles County Department of Health has Narcan training from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Mondays. For more information and to schedule a training, call 301-609-6661.