Heroin is back — with a vengeance.
It never really disappeared from the drug-culture landscape, of course, but its popularity center has widened these days. It’s no longer the drug of choice for only the down-and-out habitual street druggie. Today, heroin has become a favorite of many middle- and upper-class folks who have lost their way in the search to find pain relief.
This is not a column about the tragic recent passing of acclaimed actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, 46, who was found dead in his New York apartment, reportedly, surrounded by as many as 70 glassine bags of heroin. Nor last year’s passing of the popular star of the TV show Glee, Cory Monteith, 31, who succumbed to a heroin overdose in a Vancouver hotel room.
Those celebrity stories make for a lot of headlines, but the much bigger story is about the rest of us. There are hundreds of thousands of Americans who currently snort or inject into their veins one of the most unpredictable and deadly drugs known to man. That should be of concern to all of us.
So many Americans have gotten hooked on so many different kinds of prescription painkilling drugs over the last decade — opiates such as Oxycontin or Vicodin — that new federal laws tightening access to them were passed, prices soared and it became cheaper for addicts to buy a $10 bag of heroin.
Most frightening? According to drug abuse experts, an astonishing number of young people — those who romanticized the high they experienced after raiding their parent’s medicine cabinet — have also turned to heroin.
The latest National Survey on Drug Use and Health reports that heroin use in the United States has nearly doubled in the past 10 years. Some 156,000 Americans age 12 or older admitted they first tried heroin in 2012. (That is not a misprint. Yes, 12-year-old children are using heroin.) This is a fraction of the total number of illicit drug abusers in this country, but here’s the saddest part: Today’s heroin is killing people at an alarming rate.
In Naperville, Ill. — an affluent suburb near Chicago's heroin-riddled West Side — nearly 20 high school students have died of heroin overdoses in the last six years. CNN showcased a young woman from Naperville named Gabby Muro. Hooked on heroin at 15, Gabby was arrested for possession and spent two years in prison. She believes her time behind bars saved her life. Gabby’s take on what lures kids from her upper-middle-class neighborhood to use heroin?
“Their parents just hand them all this money,” she said. “They don’t even ask, like, ‘What are you going to do? Where are you going?’ They do whatever they want.”
Kids in the know in Pittsburgh could visit a local McDonald’s to get heroin. Police say employee Shania Dennis, 26, instructed buyers to go to the drive-up window and say, “I’d like to order a toy.” That code got them a Happy Meal box with heroin packets inside. Earlier this year, another McDonald’s employee in Murrysville, Pa., was also arrested for selling heroin.
A federal agent who runs major heroin trafficking investigations recently told ABC News, “Heroin is exploding nationwide. It’s making a huge comeback. People are dropping like flies.” Part of the reason is that addicts have no way of knowing the potency of the heroin they buy — or what might have been added to it.
Law enforcement reports that heroin laced with fentanyl — a powerful painkiller given to terminal cancer patients — has been cropping up at overdose-death scenes in the Northeast at a frightening rate. Since purveyors of this poison often exchange trade secrets, officials worry this tainted type of heroin could now appear nationwide.
Packets stamped with the words “Thera-flu” or “Bud Ice” are thought to have caused the recent deaths of more than 20 people in western Pennsylvania, 22 heroin-related deaths in Rhode Island and as many as 37 in Maryland since September. State Police in Massachusetts recently confiscated more than 1,200 packets of heroin with the words “Obamacare” and “Kurt Cobain” stamped on the bags.
The governor of Vermont devoted his entire State of the State speech last month to what he called the full-blown heroin and opiate crisis there. Gov. Peter Shumlin literally begged the legislature for more money for treatment programs noting that it costs Vermont $1,120 a week to keep an addict in prison while a week’s worth of treatment at a state-run center costs $123. Nearly 80 percent of Vermont’s prisoners are serving time on drug charges.
“The time has come for us to stop quietly averting our eyes from the growing heroin addiction in our front yards,” Shumlin said, “while we fear and fight treatment facilities in our backyards.”
For those readers who think this topic doesn’t touch their life — I implore you to think again.
A heroin high now costs less than a decent bottle of wine, a movie ticket or a meal for two at a fast-food joint. Functioning heroin addicts are all around us, yet realize they are one tainted glassine bag away from a meltdown — or death. They drive next to us on the highways, work in our hospitals or teach in our schools. Those who have been arrested and incarcerated went through the taxpayer-funded justice system and are sitting in prisons paid for with your tax dollars.
The heroin epidemic affects you. It affects all of us. And it’s only getting worse.
— Diane Dimond is the author of Be Careful Who You Love: Inside the Michael Jackson Case. Contact her at [email protected], follow her on Twitter: @DiDimond, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.