A Lowly High

Seaside Police Sgt. Nicholas Borges encourages parents to sniff out black tar heroin, like this sample, by its vinegary, chemical aroma.

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.

That’s changed.

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.


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.”

Sara Rubin loves long public meetings, red pens and reading (on newsprint). She has been editor of the Monterey County Weekly since 2016, and has been on staff since 2010.

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(3) comments

David Hamilton

Since oxy can be easily obtained off medicine storage cabinets, then perhaps there ought to be a preventive measure from that point on. Abusers will not use the product if they are not able to gain access especially if the access point is conveniently located at a storage cabinet in their own home.

Mary Carlucci

As long as there is a need for pain meds,depression meds etc. People especially our youth will find a way to get it. All y can do in not lock y medicine cabinet's. HIDE your harmful drugs. I was born in NEWARK N.J. I should be a speaker for our youth. I visited not long ago. Yes at NIGHT. What I saw shook me to my core. Young adults just walking the streets like zombies. Looking down on the ground to see if someone dropped some kind of drug so they can go it. I stayed locked in my vehicle. I will never forget this site. Maybe we should take our children to these places. It might snap something in their mind. A lot if these drugs are mind altering drugs.if your on anything. The drug controls you. Try and stop and get it out of your thoughts and that's half the battle.our kids pick cocaine and heroin because it's cheaper than meds in pill form. When the body gets used to snorting it and they still want that FIRST HIGH that they had they start to inject it. Who knows what they put into this stuff on the street. Everday your body has A different chemical makeup. That were the I'd comes in. If anyone knows of groups or schools that I could speak at PLEASE let me know. It wouldn't do as much good just writing about it. WE HAVE TO SPEAK OUT. Thanks for reading.

John Doe


No offense but it seems like you were drunk while writing this. There are big holes everywhere. Where did you park when you had to have your doors locked? Where did you go that there were kids walking around at night looking at the ground. Basically you are poorly recycling information. Living in Salinas at the moment, I can shed some light on what I think you are talking about. First lets get the drugs straight. Heroin is indeed cheap, but cocaine is very expensive. I believe you meant "Crack". There are now many teens and young adults who do whats called "Speed Balls". This is a syringe filled with half Heroin and half Meth. I'm surprised at the numbers as well. The statistics of the young who do these hard drugs like candy, are extremely higher that the 90's and beyond. I am talking about there being "no" stigma about syringes at all. When I was a teen, syringes were very much looked down upon. I'd see many other teens doing these drugs, but, the would snort or smoke. The level of kids using needles is mind boggling to me. It used to be shameful in peoples eyes. They would say, "At least I'm not slamming the dope." Meth is also a big deal in the area. It is extremely cheaper than it was years ago. These kids and frankly adults can get large quantities of Mexican Meth for candy prices. In fact I have heard that dealers make something called Cheese. It is a small amount of heroin mixed with sleeping pills. It is crushed up and the kids snort it. This was alarming to me because from what I read, they made this specifically for very young teens, like 12ish. It is very cheap and peddled to middle schools. Now about the zombie kids. In Salinas at least, I do not know where you were but other than the Maya Movie Theater area, it is dead. This is because of a large gang presence. You may not think so, but, it is dangerous to walk at night in any part of Salinas....ANY part. If you feel like that car that passed by was going a bit to slow, and you think that maybe they were scoping you out, they were. If you watched the Salinas "Cops" episode, every other car is stolen. I've lived here for only like 4-5 years and know for a fact this is true. If you live here longer than 6 months, you start putting your bags and such under the seat or in the trunk. If you leave a cell phone or any bag in your car, there is a high chance someone with break your window and take it. Most wouldn't even run. Because of gang affiliation and the large amount of Illegal Alien residents, no one will have seen anything, if you get what I mean. There are almost no witnesses to every crime in this town. People saw it but they just don't say anything. We have higher homicide and crime rates than major cities. I would never bring my child to these areas you speak of, which I'm sure is China Town in Salinas. People get stabbed there and the perpetrator goes back to their tent. No one says anything. Just being in the area, there is a chance of ricochet bullets. You could even get shot just at the stop light for some MS13 Thrill Kill they do to get initiated or just for fun. These gangs are much crazier than they were in past. Kids are crazier and if you think someone looks suspicious; They most likely do have the gun your picturing in your mind. I personally get gut feelings all the time here. I am stuck here till I finish college, which is soon finally. I can't wait to move. I have lived all over California and this is by far the worst place I have every lived.


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