“It was vicodin that got me started,” said Catton. The 32-year-old, who is more than ten years sober, works as an executive at Narcanon Arrowhead, a drug treatment facility in Canadian, Oklahoma. “I was prescribed vicodin for my wisdom teeth, got hooked on those, then started taking oxycontin. Then I got physically addicted to oxycontin to where I would get sick when I would stop taking them. From there I went to heroin.”
But Catton is not alone. As more and more people develop addictions to prescription drugs like vicodin and oxycontin, they’re also finding out that when they can no longer afford their habit, heroin is a cheaper alternative.
According to San Diego Sheriff’s Deputy Dave Ross, an 80 milligram oxycontin costs upwards of $80 on the street. A gram of heroin, which produces a very similar high, costs roughly $50 a gram. For an addict who is hard up for cash, the switch is a no-brainer.
Ross, who works predominately with juvenile addicts in San Diego, explained that he has seen the demographic of heroin users shift from inner-city kids to those in affluent, suburban neighborhoods.
San Diego in particular has seen disturbing numbers in terms of heroin-related deaths in recent years. In 2010, the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office reported 71 unintentional deaths related to the drug, six of whom were teenagers. And while the total numbers for 2011 have yet to be calculated, it has not shown much promise in terms of a decrease in those types of death.
“There have been 46 cases of heroin-related deaths in the first half of 2011,” said San Diego Deputy Medical Examiner Dr. Jonathan Lucas. “This is the highest we’ve seen in the first half of the year for the last ten years.”
As much of the heroin is arriving in the United States via Mexico, San Diego, with its multiple ports of entry, is especially vulnerable. The California Border Alliance Group reports that the increase in heroin seized at the U.S.-Mexico border is likely the result of the reduction of opium poppy eradication efforts, which has also fueled rising heroin production Mexico. Drug trafficking organizations have also grown in considerable strength in recent years.
Cross-border tunnels, which allow smugglers to carry illegal drugs into the United States without being detected, are being discovered regularly. These drugs quickly find their way onto the streets of the U.S., and often into the hands of teenage addicts.
Ross has also seen growing numbers of addicted teenagers heading across the San Ysidro Port of Entry and into Tijuana. In light of violence in border towns in recent years, this puts teenagers who cross over in extreme danger.
“If you go down there and sit by the border, on almost any given day, even the mornings and afternoons, you can pick out the ones who are going down there and crossing over,” said Ross. “They kind of fit that profile, that younger, white Caucasian kid…and they can go to any pharmacy down there, or any street-level dealer. I mean there’s so many literally within walking distance of the border. It’s pretty simple.”
Heroin addiction is even reaching places in the United States where it was once rarely an issue. In his Dec. 2011 column for Inforum, North Dakota U.S. Attorney Timothy Purdon explained that his office has seen “a marked increase in the distribution and use of heroin” in the communities of Fargo-Moorhead. Midwest cities like Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a place some would consider to be off the beaten path, have seen 22 deaths due to heroin overdose in the past two years.
Julie Brunetto, Clinic Director at the El Cajon Comprehensive Treatment Clinic in California has seen a notable increase in those seeking treatment for heroin addiction. She’s also noticed young people smoking or shooting up to two grams of heroin a day, many of whom got to that point through a prescription drug addiction. The addicts are not just getting these legal drugs through friends, but also through dealers who sell them, she said.
|Wikimedia Commons Photo|
“When you have a habit of 20, 30, 50, 80 dollars a day, and you’re a 21 or 22-year-old person, you can’t support that habit, you have to steal,” said Catton. “For me, I didn’t think that I was necessarily a bad person, I mean I didn’t want to do things that were wrong. But the drugs become such a central pull.”
Heroin addiction carries some hefty consequences, both physical and mental. But beating an addiction to heroin can be a tall order. Given the intense withdrawal symptoms users face while trying to get clean, detoxification and recovery are often essential to kicking the habit.
“Withdrawals are painful. Just imagine having the flu,” said Catton. “You have back aches, you throw up. It’s really, really tough. You’re severely depressed. The more that you use, the worse it is, to the point where some people literally have to go to the hospital and be mentally rebalanced because your body becomes so physically addicted to it.”
Brunetto stressed the importance of medically-assisted drug-recovery programs for users to get clean. She also noted the need for behavioral changes in order to be successful, and that an addiction to opiates can take up to two years to get under control.
Realizing that this new trend often begins with juveniles getting using the prescription drugs found in the medicine cabinets of their own homes, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) announced their first “Prescription Drug Take-Back Day” in Aug. 2010, which specifically calls for people to drop off their unused or unwanted prescription drugs at designated sites.
“Prescription drug abuse is the Nation’s fastest-growing drug problem, and take-back events like this one are an indispensible tool for reducing the threat that the diversion and abuse of these pose to public health,” said Gil Kerlikowske, Director of National Drug Control Policy, in an Aug. 2010 press release.
While there are treatment programs for juveniles busted with drugs, officers who deal with the problem firsthand often become frustrated with their limited resources. The judicial system is ultimately responsible for determining who needs help and who needs to be locked up, but officers have a hard time not feeling some compassion and personal empathy with some of the kids they send through the system, Ross said. Ross also emphasized the importance of involving parents in the process.
“One encounter with us [law enforcement] isn’t the solution,” said Ross. “It’s going to be a long, long process unfortunately.”
Ultimately, time will have to tell if the public is getting the message about the link between prescription drugs and heroin addiction.