View attachment 47170 Last month, I went to a teen drug summit that was organized to fight the local heroin problem some fear could become a scourge in the suburbs of St. Charles County, an affluent area outside St. Louis. The event was organized by CRUSH (Community Resources United to Stop Heroin), an initiative spearheaded by County Prosecuting Attorney Tim Lohmar, a tall and determined gentleman who's quick to flash a smile. There were judges present, a lot of men in suits, fully uniformed law enforcement officers, and DEA agents armed with pistols.
With white suburban America increasingly attuned to the heroin problem, it quickly became clear that this wasn't your run-of-the-mill Scared Straight–style terror fest, but a genuine attempt by local law enforcement to combat drug use.
"We've had 25 overdose deaths just this year and 30 last year, so we're on pace for about the same number," Lohmar told me. "Only five years ago, if you asked people in the community whether heroin was a problem, they would just look at you with a strange look on their face, but nowadays it's something different. People do realize that it is a big deal, and that's the first part of trying to get to the bottom of the issue is just making people aware."
Hundreds of sixth- through eighth-grade students from 15 different local public schools were bussed in for the event. They were all wearing Drug Summit T-shirts, and outside the ballroom where the event too place, local organizations and agencies invested in fighting the problem lined the hallways giving out Stop Heroin bumper stickers and bracelets. There was a plethora of literature and resources to inform the youngsters about drug use and a bevy of business cards and contact numbers for the kids to call in time of need.
Every table had an offering of candy and treats, too, a sort of pseudo Halloween, and the kids in their colorful T-shirts lined up to talk to the vendors and get a chance to grab some candy. Jude Hassan from Bridgeway Behavioral Health was manning one of the tables. A former addict himself, she was a featured speaker at the event.
"I think it's critical to reach kids at this age especially," Hassan told me. "A lot of schools are hesitant to have people come in and talk to kiddos that are this age because they don't want to offend the parents, they don't want the parents to be upset. They think that it's not happening at that age, but it is. It's so important to send that message to them that this is out there and at one point or another they are going to be approached."
Seeing all the kids reminded me of back when I was at that tender age. It was as a seventh grader that I first got involved in the drug world by smoking a joint. I quickly progressed to LSD, mushrooms, and cocaine. But I never got into heroin. Back in the 1980s, when I was a teenager, heroin was this dangerous thing that you had to go into the inner city to get. It involved shady characters and hypodermic needles and injections. It was just something altogether different and you didn't see it much in the suburbs.
Heroin was for the hardcore drug addicts, I thought then, but now it's a different story. Opiates are quite accessible in the suburbs in capsule-like pills that are called "beans" and "buttons" and go for $5 to $10 apiece. I talked to DEA Task Force Officer Juan Wilson, an engaging and charismatic agent who grew up in St. Charles and was there giving presentations on the dangers of heroin to the kids, to get the inside scoop on the bean and button trade in the suburbs.
"I think with the capsules and the beans and the buttons in the powder form, it's making it more socially acceptable, because when you had intravenous use or with a syringe it was considered a dirty drug and it was more so secluded," Wilson told me. "Heroin isn't considered a party drug—but the usage of it, ingesting it and snorting it is more acceptable to people in society versus injecting. I think it is appealing to more and more people in the suburbs because you can snort it or even smoke it."
And with the purity levels of heroin way higher now than in the 1980s, more people, especially kids, are overdosing even when snorting it . There were 8,620 heroin-related overdose deaths in 2013, triple the number from 2010, and in St. Charles County there were zero heroin overdose deaths in 2010, but 30 in 2014, according to a DEA presentation at the event.
"We really had no idea heroin was in our community," said Gee Vigna, a middle-aged suburban mother whose daughter Nicky died of a heroin overdose in 2013. "We tried all the things that we thought were the right things to do, but we really didn't understand the possession that heroin has on a person. When we look back now there is really so much that we didn't know. When they say what you don't know will hurt you, that is pretty much the case in this particular heroin use."
Despite her loss, Vigna has decided to push ahead by founding Walking for Wellness in memory of Nicky Vigna and all other families who have lost a child, sibling, parent or friend to heroin. The group takes walks through their communities neighborhoods to raise awareness to prevent what happened to Nicky from happening to anyone else.
"We decided to start Walking for Wellness really not having any idea what to expect," Vigna said. "And it just took off with social media and now it has a national presence. We began to get requests from all over the United States. Help us, help us, help us. This is killing our kids. What do we do? How do we take care of this? And we kind of just sat back for a minute because here we are grieving the loss of our child and all of a sudden people think you're the expert on heroin. And we really weren't the experts on heroin. We learned step by step. One thing we did know was that if we didn't know this was in our community and we didn't know that this was in our house, I guarantee you that everyone else out in this community doesn't know that either."
I found myself wanting to speak out and share my story, having seen the dark side of drug use in America and spent over two decades behind bars for it.
"Kids are very, very impressionable," the DEA Agent Wilson tells me. "Kids today are so much more smart than they use to be, they are so curious and they start drug use at a very young age. Their brain isn't fully developed until they are 21. But the brain is constantly seeking more and more and more , and it's easy to target a brain that wants more. They target people in our county because people kind of have money and more time on their hands. So they start to target users out this way for those reasons."
Just this past summer in St. Charles County, a task force arrested 54 people and took 34,000 doses of heroin worth about $900,000 off the streets. But the problem hasn't gone away. The Teen Drug Summit is meant to be the other piece of the puzzle, an offensive launched by St. Charles Country officials to combat the problem not through arrests, but education. It's a relatively modern approach, one that makes for a contrast with the DARE of decades past.
"Some of the crimes that we've charged have led to more public awareness," County Prosecutor Lohmar said. "Events like this have led to more public awareness. We want to get to a point so that when people here in the community hear about heroin they look at it like the plague. That it's something that's not sort of a mystery anymore. It;s a real thing and something that people want to avoid like the plague."
With the cartels pumping heroin into the United States like never before thanks in part to marijuana decriminalization in some states, it's going to be a tough battle indeed. But educating and informing kids is the best course of action. After all, if you educate them now, you don't have to lock them up later.
By Seth Ferranti - Vice/Dec. 1, 2015
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