Man’s addiction leaves trail of tragedy

Hit-and-run driver Joshua Johnson’s long struggle with drugs costs man his lower leg, Johnson his freedom

By Jessica Prokop, Columbian Courts Reporter



A lasting stigma

The amount of substance abuse treatment an individual needs depends on how much they use, how often and how long, said Jared Sanford, chief executive officer at Lifeline Connections, a local nonprofit treatment center.

"Unfortunately, there's still that stigma out there about being in recovery and addiction. People are afraid to talk about it and admit they have a problem. They are afraid of that judgment and that trickles up to public policy," he said.

The solution is recognizing as a society that addiction is a medical condition and making sure treatment is accessible.

"In the past when budget cuts happen, it seems (treatment) is always on the chopping block," Sanford said.

In the last few months, the issue is getting more attention and funding because of the opioid crisis, he said, but there needs to be more and it needs to be sustained. There are currently not enough in-patient beds or providers in Washington, he said.

"It's important to bring these issues out of the shadows. It affects most families. Most folks you talk to have somebody who has a substance abuse issue or mental health disorder," he said.

— Jessica Prokop

Did You Know?

  • In 2015, 27.1 million people ages 12 or older, or about 1 in 10 Americans, used an illicit drug -- cocaine, including crack; hallucinogens; heroin; inhalants; marijuana; methamphetamine; and misuse of prescription pain relievers, sedatives, stimulants and tranquilizers -- in the past 30 days, according to estimates from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration based on findings from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
  • In 2015, marijuana, which is still considered an illicit drug by the federal government, was the most commonly used substance: 22.2 million people ages 12 or older used it within the past month.
  • An estimated 830,000 people ages 12 and older used heroin, and 897,000 used methamphetamine in 2015, according to the report.
  • About 80 percent of offenders abuse drugs or alcohol; nearly half of jail and prison inmates are clinically addicted; and approximately 60 percent of people arrested for most types of crimes test positive for illegal drugs upon their arrest, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.
  • In 2016, the drug of choice for about 60 percent of clients at the Clark County Syringe Exchange Program was heroin; 40 percent used methamphetamine, and a few used opiates, cocaine or some other drug, according to Clark County Public Health.
  • In 2013, there were 525 opiate-related hospitalizations in Clark County and 14,344 statewide. There were 35 opiate-related deaths in Clark County and 580 statewide in the same year, according to Clark County Public Health.
  • In 2013, there were 1,567 drug-related hospitalizations in Clark County and 33,906 statewide. There were 61 drug-related deaths in Clark County and 1,019 statewide in the same year, according to Clark County Public Health.

Two years ago, Joshua Johnson stood outside the Clark County Courthouse and shook hands with the teenager who nearly lost his life — and did lose his lower right leg — after Johnson’s mother struck him with her car.

He had kicked his methamphetamine habit, he said, and was 27 months clean — the longest period of time since he started using drugs as a teenager. His mother, Shaun Johnson, unfortunately, still struggled.

Joshua Johnson managed to stay clean until about the end of 2015. But the siren’s call of addiction lured him back. This time, he said, “one hit” led to his life spiraling out of control.

In February, Johnson found himself in eerily similar circumstances as his mother: he struck 34-year-old Paul Adams with his car as Adams walked alongside a road in the Minnehaha area. Adams later lost the lower half of his left leg.

Johnson was sentenced earlier this month to five years in prison for hit-and-run and methamphetamine possession. Court records show it’s his fourth stint in the prison system over a 12-year span.

How could the son who once apologized for his mother go on to commit similar crimes?

“I self-sabotage; that’s what I do. When things get rough, I blow it up,” Johnson said during an interview from the Clark County Jail a few days before he was sent to prison.

In his 31 years, Johnson has a “total of 19 arrests to date, for felony drug offenses — four convictions — as well as 10 driving-related misdemeanors. Johnson has six theft-related convictions to his discredit,” according to a risk assessment report filed Aug. 4 in his latest case.

“Since the early 2000s, Johnson has been a fairly regular visitor to Clark County courtrooms, county and community corrections offices, jail and/or prison. It appears drug addiction is central to most of his offenses,” according to the risk assessment report.

A chronic brain disease

Although not all people who struggle with addiction find themselves in the criminal justice system, Johnson’s story is a familiar one — about half of the population of American prisons and jails suffer from addiction, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

Nearly 21 million Americans ages 12 and older had a substance use problem in 2015, according to estimates from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The estimates are based on findings from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The report includes marijuana, which is still considered an illicit drug by the federal government, in spite of its legalization in a number of states, including Washington.

The survey also found that in 2015, about 1 in 12 Americans needed some form of substance use treatment, but only about 11 percent of those people actually received treatment.

“People like to simplify (addiction), but it’s really complex. There are a lot of different factors to be addressed,” said Jared Sanford, chief executive officer at Lifeline Connections, a local nonprofit treatment center. “We can’t underestimate the amount of work that goes into someone living in long-term recovery.”

Addiction is recognized as a chronic brain disease, he said, and should be treated as such. Lifestyle decisions contribute to the chronic illness, just as lifestyle changes help push it into remission.

“It’s important to pivot away from past stereotypes about being a moral failing,” he said. “They can’t control it. They need treatment and understanding that this is something they will probably have to manage for the rest of their lives.”

There are many factors that lead to addiction — genetics, trauma and mental illness, to name a few.

“They might be self-medicating,” Sanford said. “Once the individual uses the drug, it sometimes turns into full-blown addiction and takes over their life. The next thing they know, they’ve lost a job, their marriage has ended or family members are taken advantage of.”

These are all familiar scenarios for Joshua Johnson.

Rocky childhood

Looking back, Johnson said he believes he’s been self-medicating since he was a young teenager.

He never met his biological father, though over the years Johnson has tried to track him down. He was, for the most part, raised by a single mother.

“Normal kids go on camping trips with their dads. They show you how to be a man,” he said. “My mom tried her best to do that for me.”

But drugs were an issue.

At 12 years old, Johnson recalls police raiding his home. He was home alone, watching cartoons on the couch after school; his mother was at work.

But even after the search, Johnson said he was oblivious to what he now suspects was his mother’s own struggle with methamphetamine use.

Clark County court records show that Shaun Johnson was convicted in 1999 of methamphetamine possession — the timing of the conviction lines up with his memory of the drug raid.

However, Joshua Johnson is adamant that he developed his own drug habit outside the home.

“She tried to protect me from that stuff, she really did,” he said.

He was first arrested at 14 for being a minor in possession of alcohol. He stole the alcohol from his grandmother’s liquor cabinet, brought it to school and shared it with friends.

“I thought I was having fun,” he said. “I think I didn’t know how to be a normal boy so I started acting out with friends. I thought being bad was cool.”

He later went through a diversion program to expunge both that conviction and a conviction for third-degree theft, court records show.

Johnson continued to drink alcohol and smoke marijuana. He said he was just doing what many other kids that age do. It wasn’t until nearly two years later that he discovered methamphetamine in his house.

Johnson was 16 when he found the meth in a cigarette pack. He took it to a friend, and together, they brought it to the friend’s father, who told them what it was and showed them how to use it, he said.

“And the next thing I know, I was on one, and I liked it,” he said. He liked the energy and focus the drug gave him.

He said his introduction to methamphetamine ended there, at least for the next few years.

Johnson said he thinks his real problems started after getting in a serious car crash his senior year of high school. He was driving on Forest Home Road in Camas, fell asleep and rolled his car down an embankment. He found himself in two arm slings and couldn’t return to school for some time or play sports — the only thing he liked about school, he said. He later dropped out.

Johnson said he was prescribed “oxy” to manage his pain.

“That made me dive into addiction a lot more, because once the pills ran out, I looked for whatever I could find,” he said.

His first conviction for methamphetamine possession was in 2005. Months later, he received his second methamphetamine conviction, court records show, and was sent to prison for 13 months at 19 years old.

He obtained his GED while incarcerated but said he was not yet ready to turn things around. Since then, it’s been a revolving door of incarceration. He gets clean for a while but inevitably relapses.

Johnson completed court-ordered treatment after being released from prison in 2014.

“But I think back then I was trying to do it for my wife and her family and my family. I wanted to make everyone proud,” he said. “I just don’t think I realized the importance of it yet. I guess I never really found myself.”

His wife, whom he married while out on bail in 2012, appears to also struggle with addiction, her court records show. She served Johnson with divorce papers in July.

Their relationship deteriorated after he relapsed toward the end of 2015. Johnson said he started to feel depressed in his new life.

“I (made) all these bounds and leaps and then plateaued,” he said.

He was let go from a new job, and began associating with people from his old life.

“That’s when everything started to fall apart, right then,” he said. He took one hit, he said, “and it turned into more.”

‘Throes of addiction’

Some people believe they can use once, but it never works that way, Sanford said; it’s a thinking error to believe relapse won’t happen.

Drug use impacts the brain by affecting neurotransmitters. Methamphetamine, for example, floods the brain with endorphins. When individuals stop using, they can experience depression. Left untreated, it goads the users to relapse.

“Any time you are in the throes of addiction and your priorities in life are now to find the next hit or bottle of alcohol, whatever it is, you neglect your health,” Sanford said. “Some individuals do have to lose everything to realize they need treatment — some don’t.”

Good social supports are crucial, because like any chronic illness, there is a maintenance component.

“Part of lifestyle changes can be radical changes — maybe a different vocation, finding people to help you stay clean and sober,” he said. “That support with good counseling and treatment and good lifestyle choices gives you the best chance of staying clean and sober.”

Family struggle

For a time, Johnson attended services at his uncle’s church. Glen Johnson has been a pastor for nearly 35 years at Faith Center Church in Vancouver, where he and his wife offer the XChange Recovery Service, among other programs.

“It’s hard to find a family that’s not dealing with (addiction) in some fashion,” he said.

“My dad was, quite frankly, an alcoholic. He drank from the time he was 15 to when he died at 63,” Glen Johnson said. His grandparents on his father’s side were also alcoholics, he said.

Glen Johnson is Shaun Johnson’s stepbrother. Her mother was married to his father. The siblings have not been in contact with each other for 10 to 15 years, however.

He said he was shocked to hear about his sister and nephew’s criminal cases but knew about their struggles with drugs.

“With Shaun being adopted and the alcoholism, I don’t think she had great strength of a father in her life. My father was a great man but alcohol got the best of him,” he said. Pretty much all of the kids struggled with their own issues, he added.

“I found myself going down that same path and that was a big turning point in my life when I was 19,” he said. “I remember drinking from an early age. It was on me like nobody’s business. (But then) Jesus came into my life and changed my life.”

Glen Johnson said he wasn’t very involved in his nephew’s life when he was a child but has gotten to know him as an adult. He’s tried to reach out over the years but addiction always took over.

“When you’re on drugs, it pulls you away from people. You feel ashamed. You run from the people who can help you,” he said. “There are two sides to Josh: the drug addict and the real Josh. My hope is that he will pursue the real Josh.

“In my opinion, I think he’s a really nice kid when he’s not on drugs,” Glen Johnson continued. “When you do what he did, everybody paints him to be the monster guy. … He just makes really, really stupid choices.”

Those choices cost a man his leg and Joshua Johnson his freedom.

But now Johnson says he’s had a “spiritual awakening.”

“I’m done. I know people say that, but I’ve wanted to be done for so long,” he said. But what makes this time different? “I hurt someone. It will haunt me for the rest of my life.

“I know this is a transformative experience for me. Somehow, I want to turn it into something positive, because the damage is done,” he said.

At the time of his interview, Johnson did not yet know which prison he would be housed in after the mandatory orientation. He hopes it will be the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla so he can finish the diesel mechanics program. When he’s released, he wants to leave Clark County. Maybe he could move to Seattle to work on a fishing boat or to Montana, where he has family.

He’s mulling over becoming a missionary.

“I want to find purpose. Just staying clean is not where it’s at; it’s about helping others,” Johnson said.