Massapequa, New York (CNN) — Doreen and Victor Ciappa thought they got a second chance when their 18-year-old daughter, Natalie, survived a heroin overdose last May.
Her mother recalled how, after the overdose, Natalie promised to stop using, insisting she didn’t need rehab.
“She said ‘oh no, I’m not going. I’ll get myself off it,’” Doreen said.
Doreen Ciappa says she had no idea the packets she found among Natalie’s belongings after her first overdose were actually heroin. “I had spent hours on the internet trying to figure out what they were.”
During the year before the overdose, Natalie had changed. The straight-A student, cheerleader and accomplished singer had lost weight and began seeing less and less of her old friends. She was spending a lot of time alone in her room, writing songs and poetry. She started hanging out with a new boyfriend. Soon, she was missing curfew and fighting frequently with her parents. Despite their suspicions, the Ciappas say it never occurred to them Natalie was using heroin.
Within weeks of the first overdose, she went out to a party and never came home. Natalie had overdosed again, this time fatally.
Law enforcement officials say a tiny, one-dose bag of heroin, costing $5-$10, is cheaper than highly controlled synthetic opiates like Oxycontin or Hydrocodone — and easily accessible to teenagers.
“Unfortunately, today, a bag of heroin can be cheaper than a 6 pack of beer,” said John Gilbride, Special Agent in Charge of the Drug Enforcement Agency’s New York Field Division.
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And this cheap heroin is deadlier than ever, according to the National Drug Intelligence Center. Unlike a generation ago, when the street drug was less than 10 percent pure — today’s version can be upwards of 70 percent pure. Teenagers are snorting it, smoking it in joints, and getting hooked faster, and overdosing more.
“Try heroin once, and you may not have the opportunity to try it again,” Gilbride says.
Wayne O’Connell, Managing Director of the Daytop drug treatment program’s outreach center on Long Island, says they are seeing teens as young as 13 using heroin.
According to the Justice Department’s National Drug Threat Assessment (2009), Mexican criminal groups are expanding Mexican heroin distribution in eastern states, taking over the South American heroin market. Mexican heroin production increased 105 percent from 1999 to 2007, while Colombian heroin production decreased 47 percent during about the same period. (1999-2006)
The NDTA says more than half of heroin arrests nationwide happen in mid-Atlantic and Northeast states - Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia. In the Northeast states, the Department of Health reports that in 2006, almost twice as many heroin users sought treatment than all other regions combined (173,728 vs. 90,405).
On Long Island’s Nassau County, where the Ciappas live, police made 211 heroin-related arrests in 2008. So far in the first three months of this year, police say, they have made 135 such arrests.
Officials and drug counselors say heroin is luring middle-class teenagers like Natalie Ciappa, because they don’t feel the stigma associated with the image of the heroin addict as an IV-drug user.
“I think we skipped a generation in education,” said Detective Lt. Peter Donohue of the Nassau County Police Department’s Narcotics Vice Squad. “The young kids don’t see the perils with heroin.”
Parents, too, may be unaware of the perils of heroin. The Ciappas have channeled their grief into a mission to save other children from Natalie’s fate. Above all, they want school districts to send home warnings to parents when there are reports of heroin use or arrests.
“They teach the kids about everything and update them on everything. They tell parents about head lice and pinkeye, and yet they’re keeping quiet about this.”
The Ciappas helped pass Long Island’s “Natalie’s Law,” which requires officials to post on the web heroin related arrests by location, frequency, and age of those arrested.
Appearing at a local civic association meeting, Doreen Ciappa pointed to a poster of Natalie and told parents: “This picture was taken nine days before my daughter died. This is today’s heroin addict. This is what they look like. They look like everybody’s kids.”
Some districts are reaching out to parents. Alan Groveman, Superintendent of the Connetquot School District, also spoke at the meeting the Ciappas attended.
“Schools in some cases are concerned that it will give them a reputation of a drug haven or an outlaw building that is problematic,” Groveman said. “We’ve taken the opposite approach,” he said. “The children are at stake and that’s really the issue.”
Victor Ciappa says his daughter had everything going for her, until heroin came into her life. “She had everything to live for. And I just never wondered ’cause I never thought it was an issue. I never thought a kid like that would ever dabble with something as scary as heroin.”
By Carol Costello
April 13, 2009