Cruz Baca, a former alcoholic and drug user, got sober after drunkenly hitting two pedestrians on College Drive in 2016 and has since made it his mission to help others struggling with addiction.
While he is deeply remorseful for his actions that day, the consequences of them, including jail time, helped him turn around decades of addiction, he said.
“All of that had to happen to get me to where I am today,” said Baca, 40, who has been sober more than 900 days.
Baca was among those who shared his story Friday at a gathering at the Durango Public Library held to help educate the community about addiction.
The event featured the 34-foot-long Opioid Memorial Wall, which displayed 4,200 pill bottles, one for every 10 Americans who died by heroin and prescription opioid overdoses in 2016. The wall is part of a campaign developed to encourage addicts to seek treatment.
Addiction is a prevalent problem in Colorado, which has seen a steady up tick of overdose deaths. In 2017, more than 1,000 residents died of an overdose, including 560 from opioid-based substances, such as heroin.
In 2017 and 2018, heroin waned as a drug of choice, said Dr. Dan Caplin, founder of Colorado Addiction Treatment Services in Durango.
Drug users are now more likely to use a combination of harmful substances, he said.
Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, can be made more cheaply than heroin and is becoming more common, he said. But it is not as big a problem in Southwest Colorado, as it is in other areas of the country, he said.
Many people with addictions end up in jail, where they don’t have access to the tools or care they need to get better, he said. Those struggling with addiction need help with underlying behavioral health problems, housing, employment and all the other pieces necessary to put their lives back together, he said.
“For people to be successful in recovery, they have to get their life puzzle together,” he said.
Baca said about 90 percent of the people he met in the La Plata County Jail and at Hilltop House, a community corrections center, were struggling with addiction. He was sentenced to two years in community corrections and 10 years of probation for crimes related to the 2016 crash.
He encouraged the audience to hear the stories of those with addictions and help them find community, because human connection is key to recovery, he said.
“We are your sons, your daughters, your fathers, your mothers, your mechanics ... and most of all, we are your community,” he said.
In 2017, he helped to develop a vision for a new recovery group that would provide an alternative to Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. The group became the local chapter of Young People in Recovery, a nonprofit that supports those struggling with addictions who seek to maintain sobriety. He is now actively recruiting new members to the group.
Young People in Recovery meets at 5:30 p.m. Thursdays at the Holiday Inn and Suites, 21636 U.S. Highway 160.