The opioid epidemic is killing tens of thousands of Americans every year.
The federal government is spending billions of dollars to fight the problem; however, there is a loophole that allows powerful opioids to enter the country legally and one family is fighting to stop it.
“Stephen was 24 years old. He was a graduate of Bentonville High School and the University of Arkansas,” Steve Hacala, father of Stephen Hacala, said.
Steven loved music and playing guitar.
“Had talked about potentially working in the music industry, owning music stores, teaching lessons.”
Those dreams and his family’s world were devastated on April 3, 2016. That day a police officer knocked on the door.
“He said your son died in his sleep in his apartment last night. It just shattered me.”
Stephen’s parents were devastated but also confused. Detectives found no obvious signs of drugs use or trauma.
They did find something out of place, a five-pound bag of unwashed poppy seeds.
“I remember asking the detective if this could have had anything to do with Stephen’s death and even my doctor friend and we all said no.”
When the toxicology report came back the cause of death was a morphine overdose.
This week Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) spoke from the Senate floor about Stephen’s death.
“[It] resulted, in part, because of a dangerous gap in our nation’s drug laws,” Sen. Cotton said.
During their search for answers, his parents discovered several websites with instructions for making poppy tea.
They worked with researchers from Sam Houston State University who found deadly levels of morphine in several brands of poppy seeds they ordered online.
“Manufacturers and retailers/distributors are selling not just the seeds but the seeds coated with opium latex,” Hacala said.
“We need to change the regulatory approach, we need to make sure that we ban all unwashed poppy seeds,” Sen. Cotton said.
“Stephen was a very intelligent, driven kid,” Betty Hacala, Stephen’s mom, said.
The Hacalas were in the gallery when cotton delivered his speech. They came to Washington to push for new laws hoping to prevent others from experiencing their pain.
“That’s an act of true love for Stephen. And for their fellow Americans,” Sen. Cotton said.
Sen. Cotton worked to get Walmart and Amazon to remove unwashed poppy seeds from their online inventories but they are still available from other sources. Cotton says he’s working with government agencies to stop their import.
Researchers have documented more than a half dozen similar overdoes cases, but they fear because so little is known about the issue, some cases may be going unreported.