Heroin in Suburbia: New Face of Addiction

Police say heroin is attracting young, middle class, suburban users.

ByABC News
September 29, 2008, 1:39 PM

Aug. 4, 2008— -- The first time Lauren, a suburban teenager in Connecticut, took a prescription pain killer, she says she was sick with strep throat during her freshman year in college and grabbed a Percocet from her parents' medicine cabinet. She never dreamed where that one pill would take her.

A few weeks later, she took an OxyContin pill to help her sleep. The next day she took another. "Once I started, I never stopped," she said.

In less that two years, Lauren, who asked that her last name not be used because of privacy concerns, said she was spending $300 to $400 a day on pills. She stole jewelry from her mother and aunt in North Haven, an upper middle class bedroom community near New Haven, Conn., and passed back checks, racking up close to $20,000 in debt, according to her mother.

But when she still couldn't afford pills, which can cost more than $60 each on the street, Lauren turned to something more affordable and more deadly to satisfy her addiction: heroin.

"When you think of a heroin addict, you don't think of me," she said. "But that's what I became."

"When you're sick" from withdrawal "nothing else matters except making it go away," she said. "I took whatever I could find, whatever was there."

Though overall heroin use has remained relatively stable nationwide, numerous police agencies across the country say the drug, once the scourge of poor inner cities, has in the last several years attracted a new generation of users who are largely young, middle-class and living in rural and suburban areas.

At least part of that resurgence, police say, is a side effect of the explosion in prescription drug abuse. Federal statistics show that nearly 7 million Americans abused prescription drugs in 2007, more than marijuana, cocaine, heroin and Ecstasy combined -- an 80 percent increase since 2000.

Police fear the boom in pain killer abuse is leading teens and young adults, like Lauren, from pills to heroin, a cheaper and more powerful – and far more dangerous - opiate.

"It's an economics thing. If someone is hooked on Oxy and can't afford to pay $80 per pill, then they turn to heroin," which can cost as little as $4 a hit, said Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman Garrison Courtney.

National statistics show that heroin use among high school students and young adults is relatively uncommon compared with other illegal drugs and has remained basically unchanged in the last few years.

But local law enforcement agencies say that an increasing number of young people are using the drug.

"People say that heroin went away. It's never gone anywhere," said Special Agent Douglas Collier of the New Jersey division of the DEA. "But the user group has changed. The old time heroin user was the guy on the street corner. Now we have kids from the suburbs."

Heroin, an opiate made from the poppy plant, works on the body in the same way as many prescription drugs such as morphine and Oxycontin. It is among the most addictive drugs and can be injected, smoked or snorted.

The 2008 National Drug Threat Assessment from the National Drug Intelligence Center, a division of the Justice Department, called prescription drug abuse leading to adolescent heroin abuse an "emerging concern" to law enforcement and a trend that was likely to continue as prescription pain killers become more difficult to obtain.

The Center, also based on anecdotal reports from local law enforcement, says heroin use is growing outside the Northeast, where the drug has traditionally been a problem, and into areas such as Appalachia and Ohio. Law enforcement agencies in areas such as Maine, Alaska and Wisconsin told ABCNews.com that the drug is growing in popularity.

"Unfortunately, 18 to 26 is our big target audience," said Dave Spakowicz, a special agent at the Wisconsin Department of Justice who heads the Milwaukee High Density Drug Trafficking Heroin Initiative. "The price of Oxycontin has doubled in the last year and a half in the Milwaukee area. People are moving to heroin."

Nationwide, the number of people who said they used heroin in the last month grew from 119,000 in 2003 to 338,000 in 2006, the latest years for which statistics are available, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. In 2006, 3.7 million Americans said they had used heroin at some point; about 60,000 were under 18.