Junkie Town: Santa Cruz’s Heroin Problem

By chillinwill · Dec 3, 2009 ·
  1. chillinwill
    SIMON* can’t find a vein. It seems that no amount of push-ups, pressure-point-holding, skin-slapping or finger-kneading will coax one to the skin’s surface. He’s got everything he needs otherwise: an isolated place in which to shoot up, some friends to keep a lookout, a syringe and three-quarters of a gram of hot, freshly dissolved black tar heroin.

    But unless he can find a vein that hasn’t sunk too low into the flesh from the weight of its own scar tissue, the wiry 38-year-old with a bristly brown beard and slightly yellow hue to his skin will start getting sick soon. “It’s like they’re scared of me,” he whispers.

    “Daniel,” a 36-year-old addict with a similar pallor, soon joins the hunt, poking and prodding the length of his companion’s limbs for any hints of blue. “Here’s one. ... Shit. Never mind, that one’s no good.”

    The two men and a third, “Tommy,” are in a leaf-littered cemetery in northern Santa Cruz with $60 worth of heroin purchased in the Pogonip. “Heroin Hill,” as it’s called by addicts and law enforcement, is a roughly 50-acre trash-strewn plot in the southeast section of the city-owned Greenbelt that’s known to addicts and cops as a substance abuse superstore with rock-bottom prices on heroin, methamphetamine, crack, marijuana, cocaine and pharmaceuticals. The $20 apiece that the three men scrounged together today recycling cans and doing what one calls “favors” bought them more than 3 grams of the drug, which almost everywhere else in the country would have cost between $150 and $400. Yet in Santa Cruz, and especially in Pogonip, savvy dealers—who police say are mostly Sureño gang members from Mexico—have found a way to flood the local market with cheap, readily available products, and they’re leaving a path of destroyed lives in their wake.

    “Fuck it. I’ll do it,” says Simon, brushing Daniel away and commencing with another round of push-ups. Daniel, meanwhile, turns the attention on himself, inching down his pants and quickly finding one of two femoral veins that run on either side of his pelvis. For Daniel, these two 6-inch corridors are the last survivors in a three-year addiction that has cost him his home, his freedom, several friends and nearly his life on numerous occasions. All his other blood vessels, like his jobs, education, family and relationships, have sunk deep out of sight, covered by the scarred realities of a life chained to the needle. All except these two. He crunches the needle through the scab-crusted skin and slams the plunger down.

    Simon, still scouring for his own lucky vein, looks up from his task for a brief second.

    “At least you can find one,” he says, then tries his other arm.

    Men like these are not new to Santa Cruz, and drugs being sold in Pogonip aren’t either. But the quantities at which both are increasing are, by all accounts, frightening. Santa Cruz Police Department records show a 41 percent spike in the number of arrests for narcotics possession and a 71 percent jump in arrests for narcotics distribution since 2008. Crimes like burglary, larceny (petty theft) and auto theft—all common ways that addicts fund their drug habits—have each increased by at least 20 percent since last year. Larcenies have, in fact, jumped 68 percent. Add that to the October murder of 16-year-old Tyler Tenorio, allegedly at the hands of the same Sureño gang that controls the Pogonip heroin trade and is known to finance its operations with drug sales, and it becomes clear that the network of violence, crime and money that swirls around the hard drug market affects more than those who ever come near a “20 bag” of heroin.

    “Many people who are using illegal drugs have limited income and are looking for quick ways to find ready cash to pay for their drugs,” says Santa Cruz Police Deputy Chief Patty Sapone. “In the parkland setting, people can go quickly into the park by the railroad tracks or by Highway 9 and exit the park quickly. It’s a convenient place away from the public eye and easily accessible.”

    More addicts are overdosing and more are dying in Santa Cruz County as well. Drug overdoses treated at Dominican Hospital have increased 66 percent since 2005, with 201 cases already this year. An audit of death certificates provided by Santa Cruz County Office of Vital Records shows that drug-related deaths have increased 30 percent since 2008, with 22 such fatalities recorded from January through mid-November. And opiates are the No. 1 cause of those deaths, with heroin, methadone, hydrocodone and oxycodone listed as playing a part in 89 percent of narcotics-related deaths.

    Simon and Daniel both admit to two severe overdoses. One of Daniel’s was in a desert in Arizona where he nearly died of heat stroke. And Simon once OD’d at a house in Los Angeles, waking up barely breathing in a shower. Both say they’ve also witnessed friends dying in front of them. Yet both also remember a time when the drug was fun, when they did it with lovers and friends, going out to concerts and parties.

    Today, however, their brains have been altered. If following the typical course of addiction, the opiate receptors inside the men’s brains have been starved of natural pleasure-inducing dopamine, becoming instead dependent on heroin and its synthetic variety. Withdrawal triggers panic, and, as David Molina, a registered addiction specialist at the drug treatment center Janus of Santa Cruz, says, it jerks them into “an animalistic survival mode.”

    “The nature of addiction is survival,” Molina says. “Withdrawal is like the worst flu you’ve ever had, times a hundred. If you’ve ever looked into someone’s eyes who’s in full detox, it
    will chill you to the bone.”

    The Buy
    It’s a brisk 15-minute walk north of Santa Cruz along the wooden railroad tracks and under the tall redwoods before the first heroin dealer makes himself known.

    “What you need? Chiva?” asks a short Latino man of about 25, rising from a squat along the side of the tracks and using a slang term for heroin, which also translates as “goat.” The man, who later says his name is Pedro, is sitting with two other Hispanic men and a white man. Between them is the bottom half of a Pepsi can, cut off and flipped over, its concave bottom functioning like a large spoon and still showing traces of a brown substance.

    The white man suddenly rises when another Latino man walks up the trail and over to the gathering. Producing two bills of unknown denomination and handing them to the newcomer, he’s given a pea-size, plastic-wrapped item and immediately hustles down the tracks with it.

    “Sorry, man, can’t share,” he says quickly when caught up to a short distance away. “They got more up there, man.”

    A few days later, and nearly 15 hours since his last shot, Daniel is pale and shaky. Having just procured $20, he sets out on his well-trodden trek to Heroin Hill. He doesn’t get that far, however, as a block away from the Homeless Services Center on Coral Street an SUV slows down. One of the three Latino occupants waves at him, stopping and exiting the vehicle. Two men get out of the car, and, in plain sight, sell 1 gram of heroin to Daniel for $20. The drug, a sticky brownish black tar that reeks sickly of vinegar with a hint of coffee, is wrapped in what appears to be shopping bag plastic. The dealers, who Daniel says often work out of Pogonip, are members of the Sureño gang. He says they’ll kill him if they find out he’s talking to a reporter.

    “Those guys are crazy. I’ve seen them make guys fight over dope before up at Pogonip. They’ll give the winner a $10 bag and the loser a $5 one. It’s sick,” he says. “But anyway, I’m gonna take this and go get myself straight. See you later.”

    The Beat
    For officer Mike Medina of the Santa Cruz Police Department, Heroin Hill is a hellscape. A maze of escape trails and vantage points that’s littered with bloody rags, used needles and heaps of trash, it’s a setting in which all the chips are stacked in favor of the drug dealers. In order to catch anyone, he’s got to get creative.

    “You see him? Watch this,” whispers the crouching officer, peering from behind a tree at a man pedaling his bike down the tracks, then suddenly whistling loudly. “The dealers will whistle at the guys when they come to buy. We’ve caught people before like this.”

    Today, however, the man on the bike isn’t buying the ruse and turns his bike around and pedals away. Medina shrugs and continues his afternoon patrol down the tracks. Soon, another man can be seen riding his bike toward the officer with a woman walking next to him. Before they can turn around, Medina calls out, asking them for identification and why they’re in the area. He knows the blonde woman, a 23-year-old from Boulder Creek, by name.

    “You’re still on parole, right?” he asks.

    “Yeah,” she admits, and submits to a search of her purse and jacket. Medina doesn’t find any drugs, but he notices a red, puffy blotch near her wrist that she seems unable to stop picking at.

    “You need to get that looked at,” he tells her after she admits that it’s from shooting heroin into her arm with dirty needles. “If it’s staph it can kill you.”

    Medina eventually lets both people off with a warning and tells them not to let him catch them up here again.

    It’s not the addicts police are targeting as much as the dealers, but on his own, the 20-year veteran knows he has little chance of catching one. Infinitely more capable of arresting dealers is the Santa Cruz County Anti-Crime Team, an elite squad of undercover and specially trained agents picked from the top ranks of the California Department of Justice, local police and sheriff’s deputies. Commander Rich Westphal leads the team and routinely sends undercover agents to purchase drugs in the area and stage stings. Regardless, he says the dealers are often one step of ahead of him.

    “We’ll go up there one day and make a buy, no problem, then the next they’ll pretend they’ve never seen us before,” he says. “It’s frustrating for all law enforcement. It’s just an isolated place where the criminals have a lot of advantages.”

    One week after he couldn’t find a vein to shoot into, Simon finds himself bedridden at Dominican hospital with an IV tube wrangled into his blistered arm—his second time in two months. Sipping a bottle of Ensure, the now freshly shaven man lies with his scabbed legs elevated by the computer-controlled bed. He says he’s in a much better mood than the last time he came. Then, he’d been shooting into his femoral vein, like Daniel. Only, for Simon, the veins had become infected with deadly staph bacteria and the doctors had moved quickly to remove two abscesses from his pelvis that he says had 20 grams (“$400 worth”) of unabsorbed heroin in them. Easily qualifying for Medi-Cal, Simon spent a month in the hospital with gauze packed in his open wounds and can no longer shoot in his femoral vein.

    “This time I just started feeling really bad and I wanted to be safe,” he says from his bed. “This time they found a blood clot in my arm. It’s something I really shouldn’t have at my age.”

    The blood clot isn’t quite as dangerous as the staph infection that could have killed him two months prior. It will, however, require several days of intense antibiotics shots and up to a year of blood-thinning medication.

    Simon is also on 120 milligrams of methadone a day while he’s hospitalized. With his eyelids drooping low, he speaks with the same sluggish, gravelly cadence as he would on heroin. Indeed, methadone—like Vicodin, Percocet, morphine, Oxycontin and dozens of other common pharmaceuticals—is an opiate, and in Simon’s case is simply replacing one drug he normally takes in erratic binges with a similar one he takes like clockwork.

    “I have nothing but good things to say about the people here at Dominican, they’ve saved my life twice,” he says. “Does coming here make me want to quit? Not really.”

    It was 2am on a December night at Heroin Hill when “Mark” decided he wanted to give up heroin. He’d spent the better part of two hours looking for a useable vein that his 15-year addiction hadn’t ruined, and there, shivering in a wet tent and sleeping bag, surrounded by his only remaining possessions, he says he met God.

    “I had just had enough,” says the tall 40-year-old musician, who has been clean now for 22 months. “I was camping up there, just living from one fix to another. I was either going to start robbing places again or give it up. And, yeah, whatever you want to call it, a ‘higher power’ or whatever, but I met God that night and I just said, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’”

    Mark puffs on Winston cigarettes furiously, but that and coffee are his only vices nowadays. He’s married to a woman he met in treatment. A woman he’s used with before, but whom he says is now as committed to staying sober as he is. He says he’s able to find joy in life again.

    “I pay bills now, I save money, you know?” he says, chuckling. “I think I got clean because I wanted to do things with my life. A lot of people don’t want to do anything, so I think I’m lucky in that way.”
    Mark, unless he relapses, is an ideal success story to those who treat addiction and to those looking to get clean. Hopelessly addicted to alcohol and opiates and funding his habit with drug sales and theft, he has now run the gauntlet of treatment from methadone to 12-step programs and has emerged alive and looking forward.

    For counselors like Molina, who recently launched a virtual reality treatment program that allows addicts to join an online world where they connect with experts and practice refusal skills online, a recovered addict like Mark has been “reprogrammed.”

    “Addiction to opiates is not a moral failure. The brain has been changed,” says Janus Clinical supervisor Carol Morgan at her office on Emeline Avenue, which also houses the organization’s methadone clinic. “I believe it takes at least two years of methadone treatment to treat the addiction. The first year we need to stabilize their life and make it not just about their next fix. Then we taper off their doses.”

    Simon and Daniel have both had stints of methadone treatment, and they’ve gone to 12-step meetings too. Their efforts, however, have always ended in relapse—usually after a quick trip to Pogonip. Even from his hospital bed, Simon says he’s much better off than his friend Daniel, who he calls “hopeless.”
    Yet it’s Daniel who says he wants to quit “more than anything.”

    “I want to get off this so bad, you have no idea,” he explains, his bones beginning to ache from the first pangs of withdrawal. “I see a lot of people that are clean and they have things. They have lives, you know? Just give me nine months of methadone and I could quit. I gotta do it soon, though, I only got a couple veins left.”

    By Curtis Cartier
    December 2, 2009
    Santa Cruz

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