David Siegel is a multimillionaire, a resort-timeshare mogul and the definition of success. As the founder of Westgate Resorts, the largest privately owned timeshare company in the world, Siegel seems to have everything a man could want.
His office sits on the top floor of Westgate corporate headquarters in the heart of Orlando’s tourism district, filled with mementos of his business achievements and pictures of him rubbing shoulders with celebrities and former U.S. presidents.
Siegel and his wife, former Miss Florida Jackie Siegel, are building one of the largest homes in the United States and starred in the documentary “The Queen of Versailles,” which chronicled their home’s construction through the 2008 financial crisis.
No one would know from looking at his life of luxury and success that Siegel works tirelessly every day to end drug addiction, a fight that chose him after he lost his daughter Victoria to an accidental overdose last year.
Victoria Siegel, David and Jackie Siegel’s oldest daughter, was found unresponsive in her family’s Central Florida home on June 6, 2015 and taken to Health Central Hospital where she was pronounced dead. An autopsy revealed that Victoria died from a methadone and sertraline overdose.
“Victoria was a beautiful 18-year-old,” David Siegel said about his daughter. “Lovable. Sweet.”
Victoria’s story mirrors those of many others struggling with addiction. In high school, Victoria suffered from anxiety. She started seeing a psychiatrist to treat her condition, which is where her drug use began. The psychiatrist prescribed Xanax to treat Victoria’s anxiety. Siegel admits that at that time, he was unaware of the potential dangers of Xanax and other prescription medications.
“I was so oblivious to all this. I never saw her walk around dazed or drugged-up. Whenever I saw her she was just acting normal.”
In the United States, prescription drug abuse has reached epidemic levels, particularly prescription opioid abuse. In 2013, approximately 1.9 million people in the United States struggled with a prescription painkiller use disorder.
After receiving the Xanax prescription, Victoria developed an addiction and started abusing her medication, all while appearing normal and well to her family.
“I was so oblivious to all this,” Siegel said. “I never saw her walk around dazed or drugged-up. Whenever I saw her she was just acting normal.”
With a great deal of maturity, Victoria recognized she had an addiction and sought help. She even entered an inpatient rehab treatment facility of her own accord. However, Victoria’s stay in rehab lasted only 10 days before she left the facility. She never overcame her addiction and continued to struggle with substance abuse.
In June 2015, Siegel and his family went out of town to attend a wedding. Victoria stayed home to celebrate an anniversary with her boyfriend. With her family away, Victoria endured a cyberbullying attack by her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend. Later that morning, Victoria overdosed. She was 18 years old.
As Siegel grieved the loss of his daughter, he came to the realization that there is a stigma associated with drug addiction — a stigma preventing others like Victoria from truly receiving the help they need to recover. Those with substance addictions are ashamed to tell anyone because of the potential embarrassment associated with addiction. Those who have loved ones with substance addictions are ashamed to talk about their illness for the same reason.
” I thought at that point, and it was only eight months ago, that drug addicts lived under bridges or on park benches. Not my kids.”
“A lot of people that die of drug overdoses, the family reports [the cause of death as] heart attack, pneumonia, cancer,” Siegel said. “They can say my son died of cancer and not be ashamed. But if they say my son died of drug overdose, it’s that stigma.”
According to a 2012 study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, nearly 40 million Americans meet the clinical criteria for addiction; however, only one in 10 individuals with a substance addiction ever receives treatment.
For too long society has taken the wrong stance on how it treats people with addictions, says Siegel. In the United States, addiction is seen as a moral failure instead of an illness. In order to help those with addictions, the public has to recognize that addiction is not a choice. It is a disease.
Siegel admits that before Victoria’s death, he, too, looked at addiction with the wrong mentality.
“I thought at that point, and it was only eight months ago, that drug addicts lived under bridges or on park benches,” Siegel said. “Not my kids.”
Siegel says the government’s policies toward fighting addiction are failing the public as a result of the same stigma.
“The Surgeon General has basically thrown up his hands in defeat,” Siegel said. “All they do in Washington is issue reports. No direct action.”
Digging deeper, Siegel came to understand that drug addiction is not something that affects only certain types of people. It is not a disease that strikes one race, one gender, one socio-economic background. Siegel realized that addiction can, and does, happen to anyone and that something needs to be done to help the people affected by it.
Instead of waiting for someone else to take action to help others struggling with addiction, Siegel decided to take on the fight himself.
Siegel started searching for ways to honor Victoria’s memory. Using his tragedy as motivation, Siegel became determined to save others from a similar fate.
Known for his relentless work ethic in the business world, Siegel made fighting drug addiction his new profession and attacked it with the same tenacity and dedication he’d used to build Westgate Resorts. The only difference was that, this time, Siegel had the influence and financial ability to bring about change immediately.
“Some higher power designated me to lead this fight. That’s a lot of responsibility.”
Siegel started researching, meeting with addiction treatment experts and reading everything he could find on addiction. He met with government officials and lawyers to discuss the legal side of addiction in the United States. He quickly became an expert on drug addiction and what was being done to prevent it. What he found shocked him.
“I’ve been to rehabs. I’ve spoken to every expert I could find in the field. I’ve read everything I could read,” Siegel said. “I’ve talked to other people that went through the same situation I’m going through. I’ve read every study and I’ll tell you, I’m appalled by how bad it is, and nothing is being done about it. No outcry.”
Siegel, recognizing a lack of direction and leadership, saw an opportunity to do something for Victoria: lead the fight against addiction. He now tells others that this fight chose him as much as he chose it.
“Some higher power designated me to lead this fight,” Siegel said. “That’s a lot of responsibility.”
Siegel’s first step to honor his daughter and combat addiction was creating the Victoria’s Voice Foundation, which aims to unite families of loved ones who have died from drug addictions with smaller family-run foundations. Siegel hopes to fight drug addiction with others who have been affected by the same heartbreak.
“Victoria’s legacy is going to be that as a result of her death, thousands of people are going to live,” Siegel said.
Siegel believes someday he will look back on Victoria’s death as the catalyst to saving the future generation from drug addiction. No goal is more important to him.
In October 2015, Siegel stepped back from managing the day-to-day operations of Westgate Resorts to focus on fighting drug addiction.
Victoria’s legacy is going to be that as a result of her death, thousands of people are going to live.
“I spend 24-7 on this,” Siegel said. “I come to work every day. On the left, I have a pile of work-related work. On the right, I have a pile of drug-related work. I look at the work-related work, I say ‘money.’ I look at the drug-related work, I say ‘lives.’ I work on the drug-related work. I don’t take a day off. I work 24-7. This is it. My life.”
Siegel decided to start his crusade against addiction locally with a group of people in whom drug use runs rampant: college students. With the University of Central Florida, the second largest university in the nation, in his backyard, it seemed like the perfect place to start.
Drug and alcohol use among students is a major concern for the UCF administration and is a problem at almost every university in the country. By late February 2016, the UCF Police Department made 47 arrests related to drugs or alcohol use, according to the department’s daily crime log. Those arrests accounted for more than 57 percent of total arrests. This number doesn’t account for UCF students arrested for drug or alcohol offenses by non-UCF law enforcement, indicating that UCF student substance abuse issues could be even more prevalent than statistics show.
“I would say that almost every statistic is probably less than what it is in reality,” Siegel said about college student drug use. “When I talk to a college student and I say ‘25 percent of the college students are using drugs,’ they say ‘are you kidding? Probably 50 or 60 percent.’”
Recognizing the pervasiveness of drug use, Siegel began researching and talking to students about substance abuse on campus. He learned that marijuana use is common among college students, that Adderall has become concurrent with studying, and that prescription drug abuse is a normal activity on a day-to-day basis.
What shocked Siegel the most about UCF student drug use was the existence of “pharm parties.” At pharm parties students bring an assortment of prescription drugs and place them in a community bowl. Partygoers take the drugs randomly while drinking.
“It could be heart medicine, who knows what,” Siegel said. “They throw it in a bowl, and the kids are drinking all night and they’re popping pills from this bowl. They have no idea what they’re taking.”
Working with UCF officials, Siegel identified a number of ways to prevent substance abuse on campus and ways to save students from drug overdoses. One way was through education.
Siegel and the UCF administration have started the conversation about creating a drug abuse and addiction class for all incoming freshman. The goal of this course is to give every UCF student accurate information regarding the dangers of drug abuse, the signs of addiction and a plan of action for overdose. This is just one of the ways in which Siegel is trying to protect younger people from the battle with addiction.
As a result of his passion, Siegel’s efforts to help students navigate addiction have been held in high regard by UCF administration.
“I applaud Mr. Siegel for his commitment to preventing substance abuse and helping those who are in recovery,” said UCF president, John Hitt.
Establishing an addiction awareness class for UCF freshmen would represent a huge achievement for Siegel; however, his biggest campus impact may not be prevention. His biggest impact may be the lives he will save with a medication called naloxone.
Drug overdoses, predominantly from opiates, are now the leading cause of injury-related deaths in the United States. In 2014, roughly 26,000 Americans died from a prescription drug overdose, and 18,893 of those were the result of a prescription opioid overdose. Another 10,574 died from heroin overdose, according to the CDC.
As deaths caused by heroin and prescription opiate overdoses continue to skyrocket in the United States, a medication that could be the answer to saving thousands has existed for more than four decades.
Naloxone, known by the brand names Evzio and Narcan, is a medication that reverses the effects of an opioid or heroin overdose, giving someone on the brink of death time to get life-saving medical treatment. Administered through either a shot or nasal spray, naloxone gives overdosing individuals about 90 minutes to seek medical attention.
“It’s the greatest miracle drug ever invented,” Siegel said of naloxone. “I mean you can take somebody that’s lying on the floor, one breath away from death, turning blue — can’t even detect a pulse — give them a shot. Two to five minutes later, they’ll stand up and tell you what they took. Before [naloxone], by the time first responders came out, they died.”
Although naloxone has been available by prescription for decades, the general public has minimal awareness of its existence. This became evident to Siegel when he spoke about addiction to 15,000 students at Liberty University.
“I said ‘how many of you have heard the word naloxone?’” Siegel said. “Not one hand went up.”
The lack of naloxone awareness manifests itself not only in the growing number of opiate overdose deaths but also in the dearth of information about the drug in the medical field, says Siegel. He hopes to make naloxone synonymous with prescription medication and wants it to be the first word that comes to mind when people think about overdose.
It’s the greatest miracle drug ever invented. I mean you can take somebody that’s lying on the floor, one breath away from death, turning blue — can’t even detect a pulse — give them a shot. Two to five minutes later, they’ll stand up and tell you what they took.
“[Naloxone] should be a household word everybody should know,” Siegel said. “People know if you get bit by a snake to get anti-venom. If you have a food allergy, you get an EpiPen. If you have a bad heart, people carry nitroglycerine. Every addict should have [naloxone] in their pocket.”
For Siegel, increasing naloxone awareness is a major step in saving others from future overdose. The next step is increasing the drug’s availability.
“It should be in every medicine cabinet,” Siegel said. “It should be in every school dorm. It should be just like defibrillators; they’re all over the place.”
With the intention of spreading awareness, Siegel carries a hand-held naloxone dispenser, demonstrating it to whomever he can, whenever he can. The dispenser, roughly the size of an iPhone, contains a small amount of the medication and a tiny speaker that gives instructions on how to administer naloxone to an overdosing individual. The device’s simplicity is surprising to almost everyone Siegel demonstrates it to.
In November 2015, the Food and Drug Administration approved Narcan, a naloxone nasal spray, for public use. The FDA acting commissioner, Stephen Ostroff, said the approval marked a key achievement in preventing future opioid overdose deaths.
“We cannot stand by while Americans are dying,” Ostroff said in a press release. “While naloxone will not solve the underlying problems of the opioid epidemic, we are speeding to review new formulations that will ultimately save lives that might otherwise be lost to drug addiction and overdose.”
Another goal for Siegel is to have naloxone given in conjunction with every opioid prescription in the country. By doing so, Siegel hopes to start the national conversation about naloxone and spread more awareness about the dangers of prescription drug overdose.
He has already started to make an impact locally in spreading naloxone awareness. Thanks to Siegel’s work with the Orange County Heroin Task Force, UCF law enforcement now carry naloxone at all times and resident assistants have access to naloxone in every dorm hall. UCF Police Department Deputy Chief Brett Meade says that equipping UCF law enforcement with naloxone makes the campus safer for everyone.
“Every one of us, from the chief down, carries naloxone on our person,” Meade said. “So if we’re in a situation where we’re responding to a call or if we happen to be in a restaurant eating or anywhere there’s an overdose situation, we’re able to immediately respond and provide this life saving drug.”
Spreading awareness about naloxone nationwide is a never-ending task for Siegel. He wants to one day have a Super Bowl commercial to spread naloxone awareness and send a powerful message to the public.
“I would put someone lying on the ground, unconscious from a drug overdose, and then have somebody come up and give them a shot [of naloxone] and watch them stand up,” Siegel said. “One hundred million people would have seen it. That would have saved lots of lives.”
Looking back at Victoria’s death, Siegel is still left wondering if naloxone could have saved her life.
“I can’t find any evidence that the first responders that came to my house even had naloxone with them,” Siegel said.
Every one of us, from the chief down, carries naloxone on our person, so if we’re in a situation where we’re responding to a call or if we happen to be in a restaurant eating or anywhere there’s an overdose situation, we’re able to immediately respond and provide this life saving drug.
“If I had known about naloxone, I would have had one of the nannies that were at the house — they would have had this. But this wasn’t even part of my world,” Siegel said pointing to the naloxone dispenser he now always carries with him.
While Siegel’s efforts with naloxone are aimed at saving people from overdose, his other efforts focus on preventing substance abuse altogether.
On Jan. 6, 2016, Florida State Sen. Rene Garcia filed the Drug Safety bill (S.B. 1378). If passed, this bill would require Florida pharmacies to offer bags with locks for prescription drugs, giving medication recipients a place to safely store them. The bill would also authorize the Florida Department of Health to develop and distribute pamphlets that give factual information about the risks associated with prescription drugs, especially painkillers, at all Florida pharmacies. Getting this bill — a bill that is affectionately known as “Victoria’s Law” — passed has become one of Siegel’s highest priorities.
Working alongside Sen. Garcia, lobbyists and other political consultants, Siegel is examining every aspect of Victoria’s Law to expedite the process of getting the bill passed through the Florida Legislature.
“I’ve developed a small (bag) — it looks like a bank deposit bag with a zipper with a combination lock on it,” Siegel said. “I’m going to get the drug stores and the pharmacies to give them out whenever anybody fills a prescription for an opioid. They’re going to give one of these bags to go along with it to start the conversation and also a little pamphlet that says why you need to lock up your drugs.”
Siegel attributes the abundance of prescription drug addiction in the United States to doctors’ readiness to write prescriptions, a general lack of understanding about the dangers of prescription drugs and the easy accessibility to prescription drugs. Siegel wants people to know that just because a doctor prescribes a medication does not mean that the prescription comes without risks.
“Doctors will give you a prescription,” Siegel said. “[Patients] have no idea that it’s addictive. I mean Adderall and Xanax and all these other things — they’re highly addictive — and they’re giving them out like candy.”
By working to have Victoria’s Law passed, Siegel believes he is laying the foundation to have stricter laws for locking up prescriptions in the future.
“If I get this bill passed through the legislature here, then I’ll try and take this nationwide,” Siegel said. “This is kind of like the proving ground.”
Siegel is adamant that drug testing is the solution to preventing American youth from starting to use drugs. He wants to establish drug testing programs for every middle school, high school and college in the country and hopes that implementing drug testing in schools on a regular basis will deter students from starting to use drugs altogether, ultimately saving the future leaders of the country.
“We’re losing our whole future generation to [drug addiction],” Siegel said. “We’re losing our future Steve Jobs. Bill Gates. We could be losing the cure for cancer. We’re definitely losing music you’ll never hear and books you’ll never read and movies you’ll never see.”
Drug addiction starts at a young age, says Siegel, usually with marijuana experimentation. After prolonged marijuana use, students do not receive the same euphoric effects as they once did and move on to harder substances to attain similar effects.
“They go to cocaine,” Siegel said. “They go to heroin. They go to OxyContin.”
According to Siegel, getting through to students before drug use occurs is the key to preventing addiction. To him, there is no better way to do that than to drug test students.
“If the problem starts with 14, 15 year olds in middle school, then that’s where we’ve got to stop it,” Siegel said. “What parent doesn’t want their kid to go to a drug-free school?”
While many critics have come out against his efforts to create school drug testing programs, Siegel says drug testing should be instituted to help students, not to punish them.
We’re losing our whole future generation to [drug addiction]. We’re losing our future Steve Jobs. Bill Gates. We could be losing the cure for cancer. We’re definitely losing music you’ll never hear and books you’ll never read and movies you’ll never see.
“We have to have drug testing in middle school, high school, college,” Siegel said. “Not to be punitive. Not to kick the kids out of school and ruin their lives, but to find the ones that are using drugs and counsel them. And the ones who are severe addicts, rehab them. But not to penalize them.”
Controversy surrounded Siegel’s efforts to have UCF institute drug testing across the entire student body last fall, a move the UCF administration declined. UCF would have been Siegel’s first school with his testing program.
Still, that has not stopped Siegel from trying to create drug testing programs in other schools. Most recently, Siegel worked with Andre Agassi to try to establish drug testing programs in Agassi’s line of charter schools set to open in the United States.
If he is never able to create drug testing programs in schools, Siegel says it becomes parents’ responsibility to drug test their kids.
“You have to drug test them. You have to have tough love,” Siegel said. “I’m going to tell you something: the parents that do drug test their kids and their tests come back clean, it’s like Christmas come early. The fact that you know your kids are not using drugs.”
As with Victoria’s Law, success at the local level will allow Siegel to take the student drug testing program to a national level.
He remains adamant that drug testing is not only an effective deterrent for drug abuse but also an indicator for students who need treatment.
The biggest challenge for people trying to overcome an addiction, Siegel says, is staying in rehab long enough to effectively treat their addiction. The second is finding quality treatment.
Longer treatment periods have been shown to be more effective in helping those in recovery reach long-term sobriety. Often, those with addictions do not want or are unable to stay in rehab long enough to effectively treat their addiction. While many drop out of rehab treatment of their own free will, others are forced to leave treatment before they reach recovery because their insurance provider covers only 30 days of treatment.
Many individuals return to their normal lives without having effectively treated their addiction and relapse shortly after treatment. This post-rehab period is when individuals are most at risk of overdosing.
“The most critical time is right after they come out of rehab because they’re using drugs up to a certain level, certain strength,” Siegel said. “They go into rehab, they get detoxed. They come out.”
Most people are in rehab for a period of 30 days, says Siegel. But it takes at least 90 days in treatment to give an individual a shot at eliminating their addiction.
“So they come out — they’re not really cured and a lot of them relapse — and what do they do?” Siegel asked. “They go back to the strength that they took when they first went into rehab, but their body can’t tolerate that because they’ve been off drugs for, say, 30 days or whatever, and that’s when they overdose.”
Increasing the average length of stay in treatment would be near-revolutionary in improving the quality of treatment available to people and could potentially prevent post-rehab relapses and overdoses. At current conditions, very few people who need treatment for substance use disorders have access to high-quality facilities.
Siegel continues to research ways to create high-quality treatment facilities at the lowest cost possible. Should he succeed, Siegel plans to give every American in need the chance to recover from drug addiction. The chance to turn their life around.
The drug epidemic is growing, says Siegel, and taking action now is the only way to save the future generation from an unprecedented level of drug abuse.
“Oh my God, it’s expanding,” Siegel said. “In 10 to 15 years, [addiction will] be such a problem that I don’t know if we’re going to able to get a hand on it. This could be the like the fall of the Roman Empire.”
According to Siegel, the most dangerous aspect of addiction is that drug users cannot recognize that they are developing one. Their addictions grow slowly over time until their condition becomes severe.
“It’s like a cancer,” Siegel said. “You don’t know you have it and it’s inside of you, and it’s growing. Finally when you find out that it’s serious, it’s too late. I think the same thing here. When they really realize how bad it is, it might be too late to do anything about it.”
In 10 to 15 years, [addiction will] be such a problem that I don’t know if we’re going to able to get a hand on it. This could be the like the fall of the Roman Empire.
At the bare minimum, Siegel just wants to help people struggling with addiction. He wants drug users to be aware of the danger and tragedy that accompanies addiction. He wants parents to know the correct strategies to prevent their children from developing an addiction. For young people like Victoria, his message is clear.
“Don’t be a statistic,” Siegel said. “Don’t be one of the 50,000 that are going to die this year from a drug overdose. Don’t let the genie out of the bottle. Don’t believe that you can stop after you start. It’s very difficult.”
Siegel’s fight goes on. Every day he evolves and learns more about addiction. He says he will continue to innovate and find new ways to combat addiction. Throughout his battle, the goal remains the same.
“I just want to save lives,” Siegel says. “I just want to save lives.”