Heroin’s Long Reach Into the Suburbs of America

Vermont police take a drug suspect into custody in the image on the right. (AP photo)
Vermont police take a drug suspect into custody in the image on the right. (AP photo)

The drug has followed prescription painkillers into new neighborhoods, forcing police and parents to confront an unexpected problem.

Ana was a good student in middle school. She got above-average grades, seemed poised and self-possessed, and, like many of her friends in her charming coastal town north of Boston, was on a probable path to college. Then, during her freshman year in high school, she decided to experiment with drugs and alcohol.

One night she got very drunk with some friends and loved it. She says it made her feel like “the person she wanted to be.” Before long she was also smoking marijuana. Soon after, a friend gave her some prescription painkiller pills to try, which Ana (not her real name) says made her feel even better than the alcohol.

She started buying the pills illicitly – often spending several hundred dollars a day. She stole to support her habit, but it wasn’t enough. Then her friend asked her: Why not try heroin, since it’s so much cheaper? Ana was shocked. Heroin, after all, was for “real” drug addicts.

But by that time her dependence on the painkillers had become more than she could resist. She bought the heroin, snorting the powder at first. But within six days she was injecting herself with a needle – becoming the archetype of a classic heroin addict.

Ana’s anguished journey from conscientious student to heroin user is one confronting many young people in suburbs across the country. From Los Angeles to Long Island, Chicago to New Orleans, parents and police are struggling with a rise in heroin use in suburban neighborhoods more often concerned with SAT scores and the length of lines at Starbucks.

The rise is being driven by a large supply of cheap heroin in purer concentrations that can be inhaled or smoked, which often removes the stigma associated with injecting it with a needle. But much of the increase among suburban teens, as well as a growing number of adults, has also coincided with a sharp rise in the use of prescription painkiller pills, which medical experts say are essentially identical to heroin. These painkillers, or opioids, are prescribed for things such as sports injuries, dental procedures, or chronic back pain. Yet in a disturbing number of cases, experts say, they are leading to overdependence and often to addiction to the pills themselves, which can then lead to heroin use.

The latest rise in heroin abuse was made more visible by the recent overdose death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. But use of the drug has been growing steadily across many levels of society for at least the past five years. And unlike the heroin surge in the 1970s, the current use of opiates is far more concentrated among suburban and rural whites than among African-American and Latino communities.

In Vermont, Gov. Peter Shumlin in January devoted his entire State of the State message to the heroin crisis engulfing his state. In Massachusetts, law enforcement authorities recently reported that 185 people have died of heroin overdoses in just the past four months – which didn’t include numbers from the state’s three largest cities. Nationwide, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), heroin use among persons age 12 and older nearly doubled between 2007 and 2012.

“The perception [used to be] that heroin was mostly an urban problem,” says Anthony Pettigrew, an agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) based in New England. “But now there are no borders, there are no demographic or geographic areas … that are immune from heroin.”

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SOURCE: The Christian Science Monitor
Kristina Lindborg

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