Young and Suburban, and Falling for Heroin
THE kids weren’t all right. They lived in the same comfortable Long Island town and were barely in their teens when they took their first hit of marijuana or sip of alcohol, propelling them on dark journeys they couldn’t seem to escape. Within a couple of years, they were in heroin’s grip.
“My parents had no idea,” said one of them, a 17-year-old girl who, like other formerly addicted youths interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of her past drug use. “My mom thought I was smoking a lot of weed and taking diet pills, because who would’ve thought that such a bad drug could be so easily accessible to me?”
The girl grew up in western Suffolk County, in a town where, she said, “everything is perfect,” with white picket fences and two cars in each driveway; for her birthday last October, she received a black Jeep, and she went to a wealthy, high-performing public school. “Growing up, everything is pushed on you,” she said. “You’re trying to be the smartest, trying to compete with everyone.”
Heroin, she said, was an escape. The girl said that she had not used drugs since entering rehabilitation in January, but that many of her former friends were still hooked on heroin, and at least two had fatally overdosed.
They are part of a new wave of heroin abuse that officials across the New York region are grappling to understand. During the first six months of 2009, 25 people in Nassau County died of heroin overdoses — more than from homicide and drunken driving combined; in 2008, 46 people fatally overdosed on heroin, up from 27 in 2007, according to Nassau officials.
In New York City, recent drug raids of so-called heroin mills have yielded hundreds of thousands of bags at a time, up from several hundred bags a year ago, according to Bridget G. Brennan, the city’s special narcotics prosecutor. What is especially worrisome to law enforcement officials and treatment experts is the fact that many of heroin’s newest addicts are in their teens or early 20s; many also come from middle- or upper-middle-class suburban families.
At Blue Hills Substance Abuse Services, a treatment center at Cedarcrest Regional Hospital in Hartford, about 10 percent of young adults had cited heroin addiction during admission in recent years; this year, it’s closer to 30 percent. At the Mendham site of Daytop New Jersey, an adolescent substance abuse center, the portion of teenagers entering treatment for heroin addiction has doubled to 40 percent in the past year.
“The problem is the kids are using younger and younger,” said Howard Riesel, coordinator of the adolescent-services unit at Glen Cove Hospital on Long Island. “It’s cheap. It’s accessible.”
Experts trace the spike in heroin use to its widespread availability and low cost. A bag of heroin can sell for $5 to $25 and induce a six- to eight-hour high, according to officials and former users. Cocaine, by comparison, can cost $40 to $60 for a 30-minute high, while prescription painkillers like Vicodin or OxyContin sell for upward of $40 a pill on the street.
“It’s becoming cooler,” said Dr. Carlos Hernandez-Avila, a medical director at Blue Hills.
Long Island residents were brutally awakened to the heroin problem in June 2008, when Natalie Ciappa, 18, an honors student from Massapequa, fatally overdosed. Suffolk and Nassau Counties passed laws in her name to build Web sites tracking heroin arrests. The Nassau County executive, Thomas R. Suozzi, put together heroin summits to raise awareness, and last week police in Suffolk county began making anti-heroin presentations to eighth graders, an initiative that will soon extend to other grades.
Still, in the past eight years, the number of young people entering the county’s detoxification centers and withdrawal programs has mushroomed. In 2000, 59 people ages 19 to 25 entered Nassau’s detoxification and rehabilitation centers for heroin abuse, according to Arlene Sanchez, the county’s commissioner of mental health, chemical dependency and developmental disabilities services. In 2008, 458 did.
Jonathan, 19, a former addict who attended Mr. Riesel’s program on Long Island, said he took his first puff of marijuana at 13, and it made him feel gloriously liberated from the awkward, chunky boy he had been. Within two months, he was popping Vicodin pills, dextromethorphan (a cough medicine that can have psychedelic effects) and, eventually, Xanax and OxyContin. He made much older friends, began selling drugs and prided himself on his high drug intake.
“People almost gave me praise for it,” Jonathan said. He said he tried heroin shortly after he turned 15, while high on Ecstasy and cocaine. It blew him away.
“It hits you so hard, but it’s so smooth and enticing at the same time,” he said. “It hits you like a train of false love.”
The heroin available in the Northeast these days is purer than the kind that ravaged New York City in the 1970s, experts say, and almost certainly as lethal, if not more. Dealers often mark the bags with words like “Red Bull,” “Lexus,” “Kiss of Death” and “R.I.P.,” or a skull and crossbones.
“It’s part of the attraction of the drug, to get so close to dying but come back,” Ms. Brennan said. “The results can be tragic.”
One of Jonathan’s friends, a 21-year-old former addict from Long Island named Brian, said heroin was cheaper, and often more available, than marijuana or ecstasy.
“Believe it or not, as a high school teenager, it was easier for us to get than alcohol,” he said. “It’s cheaper than anything out there.”
The 17-year-old girl from western Suffolk said she moved to heroin after she could no longer support her two-pill-a-day OxyContin habit, which she had financed by stealing from her parents. Her first drive in her new black Jeep was to a heroin dealer. She grew thin and listless, stopped showering and began sleeping at all hours, but said that her parents did not suspect the worst.
“Parents are working hard out here and giving their kids all this stuff, and still kids are getting hooked,” she said. “I think parents put a blinder over their faces.”
Another friend of Jonathan’s, a high-achieving student named Alex, passed under the radar until he was arrested for possession at 16. “I had a 98 percent average,” he said. “I was in honor societies. I was a peer mediator.” Now 20 and in college, Alex said he had been drug- and alcohol-free for two and a half years.
For all four former addicts, it took being arrested, often several times and nearly always for drug-related offenses like stealing or possession, before their addictions came to light.
All four said they also witnessed friends overdosing, sometimes fatally, or had overdosed themselves. Brian knew young people who gave unconscious friends CPR until the ambulance arrived. Last October, Jonathan overdosed and was shocked back to life by defibrillator paddles in a hospital emergency room. The first thing he did after waking up, he said, was reach into his pants’ pocket to locate his drugs.
He eventually got clean, earlier this year, after spending time at St. Christopher’s Inn, a friary, rehabilitation center and homeless shelter in Garrison, N.Y. He is healthy now and stands tall in his 6-foot-1 frame.
When local officials began focusing on heroin last year, Jonathan said his friends all had the same thought.
“This has been a problem for a while,” he said. “We all wondered, ‘Where have you been?’ ”
Published: September 25, 2009
By CARA BUCKLEY
New York Times