May 24, 2007 -- In the Dallas-Fort Worth area of Texas, police believe that an innocuous sounding substance is responsible for the drug overdose deaths of 21 people, all younger than 21-years-old.
The "cheese," as it's called on the street, is a highly-addictive mixture of black tar heroin and over-the-counter sedatives such as Tylenol PM.
Popular With Kids
The drug has become popular in some middle and high schools because it is so cheap -- single doses are sold for $2 or $3 -- and because no needles are necessary.
Sgt. Jeremy Liebbe, a narcotics officer for the Dallas Independent School District Police, said drug dealers have targeted a new market for "cheese" -- school kids as young as 9 years old.
"To market heroin to kids," Liebbe said, "you've got to get rid of the needle, because even the hardcore cheese users have said, 'I wouldn't stick a needle in my arm to get high, but I'll snort it up my nose.' So you've got to get rid of the needles and you've got to make it cheap enough for kids to afford."
Liebbe believes the nickname "cheese" originates from the Spanish word "chiva," which is street slang for heroin. The mixture also has the consistency, if not the color, of Parmesan cheese.
One 17-year-old girl recovering from a heroin overdose in a Dallas rehabilitation center said she became addicted after using "cheese" as often as four or five times a day.
The girl, a junior in high school, said students would snort the mixture in class or school bathrooms using hollowed-out ballpoint pens. "Cheese" became popular, the teenager said, "because it's so cheap."
Trafficked By Gangs
Police in the Dallas area first noticed "cheese" in August 2005. Since then, they have handled more than 200 cases, most of them in Hispanic neighborhoods.
"The guys bringing it in are usually the Mexican-affiliated gangs," said Liebbe. "They're going to end up selling to the neighborhoods that they're comfortable in."
Carlos Quintanilla, a parent and community activist, grew alarmed earlier this year when a student at his son's middle school overdosed on "cheese."
Oscar Gutierrez, a popular 15-year-old whose burly physique earned him the nickname "Shrek," died in February of acute heroin poisoning. His mother said she had no idea her son had been using the drug.
Quintanilla said many of the young students who try cheese have no idea they are actually snorting heroin.
"A young kid will say, 'This is cheese. This is cool, man. Try the cheese.' It's very different when you say, 'Try some black tar heroin,'" he said. "We need to send out the message that it is not Swiss cheese or American cheese. This is black tar heroin, the most dangerous, addictive drug in America."
Awareness -- Not Arrests -- Is Key
In Dallas, police have stepped up enforcement and brought more drug-detecting dogs into middle schools and high schools. But Dallas Deputy Police Chief Julian Bernal recently told a gathering of parents and students, "We cannot arrest our way out of this problem."
Instead, police and school officials are trying to raise public awareness that "cheese" can lead to addiction and death.
They've enlisted a Dallas DJ popular with young Hispanics, Synbad Ontiveros, who told the students assembled for a recent session on "cheese" that "heroin is not a joke. This drug will kill you faster than anything else."
'Cheese' Likely to Spread
In February, Dallas police and federal agents busted Martin Laguna, a 31-year-old man they suspected of being a major "cheese" dealer. They allegedly found Laguna with nearly $100,000 worth of black tar heroin, and $98,000 in cash, guns and other tools of the trade. No indictment on these charges has yet been filed.
Police say his arrest may make a dent in the local drug traffic. But Liebbe knows it probably won't stop the spread of "cheese" beyond Dallas-Forth Worth.
"We do expect that there's a good possibility that the phenomenon will spread," he said.
Like crack-cocaine and methamphetamine before it, "cheese" may eventually become a household word. But the selling of this new drug is even more even more sinister. Drug dealers sell to customers who may be too young to know that sampling something that sounds so innocent can leave them addicted to heroin and all of its chilling consequences.