At first glance, a street user’s stash of black-tar heroin doesn’t seem remotely sinister – just a little clump of something like a moldy sandwich remnant in a crumpled plastic baggie.
But these thumbprint-sized clumps are potent and devastating. And they’re increasingly common, both on the Monterey Peninsula and nationwide.
“In 2010-12, that’s when heroin had a huge comeback here on the Peninsula,” Seaside Police Sgt. Nicholas Borges says. “I’ve arrested kids from Monterey, Carmel, Pacific Grove. Jocks to you name it, every single type of kid. I’m seeing a very big surge of [users], starting at the high-school level.”
Borges was working as a narcotics detective when OxyContin, an opiate painkiller, hit the market hard and became a easy way to get high. Users grind up the pills, then inhale the fumes produced by lighting it up from under a piece of tinfoil, in a practice users call “chasing the dragon.” Because there are no needles involved and it’s a prescription painkiller easy to snatch from parents’ medicine cabinets, law enforcement officials say it lets teenagers feel like it’s a “clean” drug instead of a dangerous street drug.
“I remember so many [Oxy users] saying, ‘At least I’m not doing heroin,’” Borges recalls.
In 2010, manufacturer Purdue Pharma started making addiction-resistant Oxy: by strengthening the pill shell, they made it impossible to grind into a powder. As a result, police say, increasing numbers of users have turned to black-tar heroin, a cheaper drug that produces a similar high.
“I’M SEEING A VERY BIG SURGE OF USERS, STARTING AT THE HIGH-SCHOOL LEVEL.”
The old formulation for Oxy became a hot black-market item, with the price jumping from $5 per pill to about $80 today. Heroin, on the other hand, runs about $100 a gram. A heavy user might go through 5 grams of heroin in a day, Borges says; the same amount of powdered Oxy would cost nearly double.
Plus, it’s harder to come by. That’s partly because Central Coast physicians have cracked down on prescription drug abuse, participating in the California Department of Justice’s CURES (Controlled Substance Utilization Review and Evaluation System) program. That lets doctors cross-reference a database listing patients’ prescriptions from other docs.
“The upside is that’s being better regulated,” says Bruce Loisel, M.D., program officer at Off Main, one of the county’s two methadone clinics in Salinas. “The downside is, people who are addicted to opiates then turn back to heroin, and then we’re right back in the same boat.”
There’s also a new trend in how black-tar heroin addicts get high. According to Loisel, five years ago about 20 percent of younger users inhaled the drug and 80 percent injected; now it’s more like 50/50. He also sees a slight increase in the number of patients, which he attributes to Obamacare.
Police are adapting to the younger faces of heroin users. Last month, a Carmel Police detective and sheriff’s deputy presented to parents and students at Carmel High School on the signs of heroin use in teens.
“Whether you start in Pebble Beach or Chinatown in Salinas,” Loisel says, “the path leads to the drug dictating your life.”