By MARÁ ROSE WILLIAMS
The Kansas City Star
Heroin snaring more of suburbia’s youth
The smell of smoke at 4 a.m. abruptly woke Kristin and sent her rushing down to the kitchen.
She found mini tacos burning to a crisp in the oven — and her 20-year-old daughter sitting on the floor, head hung forward, arms limp.
“The first thing out of my mouth was, ‘What is wrong with you, is your blood sugar low?’” Kristin recalled frantically asking the former Olathe high school cheerleader and gymnast.
It wasn’t the sugar in her blood that was wrong. It was the heroin. The girl was nodding in its warm embrace.
The story is one of several catching the attention of authorities and area drug abuse counselors this year.
The problem has shown up in New York, Illinois, Alabama, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Utah and Washington state. Heroin use is on the rise among suburban youth, experts say, and although the numbers are still small, spikes in overdoses and even deaths show an alarming trend.
In Blue Springs, police dealt with five cases of heroin and youth in October after half a decade of seeing none.
In many cases, the way was paved by other opiates, the Oxycontin or Vicodin painkillers, often swiped from a medicine cabinet. But parents have become more alert to possible misuse.
While painkillers can run to $40 to $60 a pill, a bag of heroin, which produces a more intense high, is $5 to $10.
No trips on Interstate 35 to either Kansas City were necessary. The daughter said her dealer lived two blocks from Kristin’s upper-middle-class home in the 66062 zip code.
When told the truth, it was Kristin’s turn on the floor.
“I shrank on to the kitchen floor in to the fetal position,” Kristin said. “I had no strings. I lost it. I was afraid my daughter was going to die.
“I couldn’t believe it. If you could see my daughter you would never believe it, either. A blond-haired, blue-eyed California girl. Shooting up every other day? Not my girl.”
The street heroin of the 1960s and ’70s was about 30 percent pure. Today, it’s often 60 percent, making it possible to smoke or snort.
Two years ago, the parents of Blue Valley Northwest High School graduate Brett Hayes found their 20-year-old son against the sink in his bathroom, the needle still in his arm, dead of an overdose.
Johnson County sheriff’s deputies listed him as one of 24 heroin overdoses and one of five deaths that year. The first five months of 2009 is the latest data they have compiled. In those months, 22 overdoses and six deaths were recorded.
The problem is steadily growing, said David Brown, a drug and alcohol abuse counselor in Olathe. “This year alone we did intervention on three young heroin addicts.”
His wife, Lucy Brown, also a drug-abuse counselor at Avenues to Recovery, added that the addicts were “children from intact homes where the parents make a comfortable living. These kids drive nice cars and have access to cash.”
Police indicated the problem had not surfaced in every suburb yet. Many said they were mostly battling other drugs, and saw keggers replaced by “pharm parties,” where teenagers pour a bottle of pilfered pills into a bowl.
Maureen’s left arm is riddled with three years of scar tracks, “a daily reminder” of the injections, eventually 20 times a day.
As an Olathe high-schooler, she bought meds, such as Oxycontin, from classmates. Thus introduced to the feel of opiates, teens feel more comfortable with the idea of heroin.
Maureen said she kept a 3.7 grade-point average and was into photography.
It was as a freshman at the University of Kansas that she graduated to heroin, dropping out before her sophomore year.
“I started out snorting it and then injected it. It turned into a daily necessity,” she said. “I needed to use every day or I couldn’t get out of bed. It was a big obsession in my life.”
By 20, she was living out of her car and trying to satisfy a $200-a-day habit.
“There were a lot of us on the street,” she said of her fellow users. “We’d park our cars in Wal-Mart lots to sleep.”
Once hooked on black tar heroin, said Lucy Brown, “they are no longer involved with their school environment anymore. When they start using heroin they are exposed to a different population, and they want to be close to their source.”
Black tar heroin, predominantly from Mexico, is crudely made, with color that varies from dark brown to black.
Maureen: “I knew what I was doing was not healthy but all the people I was socializing with were using it.”
She worked periodically but could not hold a job.
“I either didn’t show up or I stole from them,” she said.
At first she was able to keep the secret from her “normal loving family” who lived in an upper-middle-class Olathe neighborhood.
When she told them about her heroin use, she got clean through rehabilitation and a prescribed substitute. But she fell back into her habit and her family had enough.
“I was using in their house. They asked me to get help or get out. All I wanted to do was get high so I left,” she said.
By the time she decided again that she had to get help, “I had stopped eating or sleeping. I ended up in the hospital and I was really sick,” Maureen said. “I was 100 pounds and my liver and my kidneys were damaged. I was either going to get better or I was going to die, and I didn’t want to die.”
Today Maureen is eight months clean and living amid recovery counselors and supporters in California. She will return to Johnson County, but “not until I get a better foundation for myself.”
She said she has heard that friends have younger brothers and sisters addicted to heroin.
“They tell me it is really bad.” said Maureen. “Sad.”
The rise of heroin among suburban youth is more disturbing considering its decline among adults. Because fewer adults are involved now, the dealers tend to be other teens. Teens also are more likely to overdose, experts said.
Area high school officials said they had caught students smoking marijuana and possessing prescription drugs, but not with heroin yet.
“We have not seen a big outbreak of heroin use among students,” said Sgt. Brian Wessling, supervisor of Olathe school resource officers. Still, he said, officers “are looking for it,” and last year underwent training to spot signs of use. The canine unit that roams Olathe high school parking lots on drug searches is a big deterrent, he said.
“It’s only a matter of time before national trends hit the Midwest,” Wessling said. “We want to stay in front of that.”
Johnson County leaders launched a school initiative to alert children and parents to the danger.
Kristin, who works in the medical field, was in denial even as she helped her 90-pound daughter up from the floor on taco night.
“Kids are master liars,” she said.
Yes, the kid, at 16, had been caught by police for marijuana possession. A phase, she and her husband told themselves. Later they would learn she had lifted painkillers prescribed to Kristin’s husband.
But she never fathomed her child’s slow, “air-head-like” speech was caused by heroin.
“Heroin, that’s a junkie drug,” Kristin thought. It’s an opiate that most associate with shabby apartments and dark alleys in the city core.
When Kristin mustered the courage to ask her daughter whether she was using heroin, “She told me she couldn’t go two days without it.”
The daughter has been more than half a year at a rehab center in California. Kristin said she wanted her to stay until she was clean at least a year.
“It is very devastating to the family,” she said. “I was afraid my daughter was going to die.”
It took all the strength Kristin could muster to give her daughter the ultimatum to get out of the house or let her parents help. She said she was glad she did not wait for her daughter to reach some “unidentifiable rock bottom.”
She and her husband blamed one another for not seeing the signs. Now they regularly attend group meetings for families of addicts.
“I’m in my own recovery,” Kristin said. “We had a false sense of security, thinking that just because you live in the suburbs and you send your kids to good schools. … Who would ever dream that their kid would start snorting heroin, much less, shoot up?”
Signs that a child might have a drug problem
•Drug paraphernalia — dirty spoons, syringes, pieces of burned foil, straws.
•Droopy appearance, as if extremities are heavy.
•Disorientation, poor mental functioning.
•Constricted pupils/pale, pasty skin.
• Apathy and/or lethargy. Nodding off.
•Eyes appear “lost” or have faraway look.
•Unkempt appearance/hygiene issues.
•Wearing long sleeves in warm weather.
•Missing cash or valuables, borrowing money.
•Change in performance — academic or otherwise.
•Unexplained absences at work, school or family events.
•Change in friends
•Withdrawal from usual activities or interests.
To contact Mará Rose Williams, call 816-234-4419 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted on Fri, Nov. 12, 2010 12:06 AM