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Cheaper than a six-pack of beer, more potent than ever: fighting the rise of heroin in St. Louis

Michael Velardo | Flickr


In the 1970s it killed Janis Joplin. In the 1980s it killed John Belushi. In the 1990s it killed actor River Phoenix. And now a very potent form is killing young people in suburban St. Louis. It is heroin and it’s an epidemic according to St. Louis area officials.

As St. Louis Public Radio’s Julie Bierach reports, parents, police and addiction specialists are desperately trying to get a handle on the problem.

A haunting discovery

Marilyn Smashey says her son Taylor Green was a good kid. He was smart, kind, stood up for the little guy. But at 17 Taylor fell in with the wrong crowd and started using heroin. He was arrested for stealing and sent to rehab, and when he got out, Smashey watched him like a hawk.

She knew how much money he had, how much gas was in his car and routinely searched his room for drugs. But she couldn’t keep heroin out of Taylor’s life. Early one Saturday morning in December 2009, something compelled her to go to Taylor’s room.

“Something just didn’t seem right in the room," Smashey said."When I got closer to him I could see that his eyes were open. And the closer I got to him, the more I could feel how cold he was. And I kept thinking this isn’t really happening, and I remember going across the hall and I got Taylor’s stepdad and I’m like ‘I think Taylor’s dead.’”

Taylor Green was 18 years-old. When police arrived, Smashey says, they knew right away it was a heroin overdose. Taylor had all the signs, pinpoint pupils and foam on his mouth, which is typical of respiratory depression. And police found a loaded syringe of heroin in his pocket.

Taylor Green lived in St. Charles County where heroin has yet to reach epidemic levels. But in St. Louis County, young people are dying of heroin overdoses left and right.  Dr. Mary Case is chief medical examiner of St. Louis, St. Charles, Jefferson and Franklin Counties. She says heroin deaths used to be a rare occurrence.

"If as many people died from the flu as died from heroin, people would be up in arms."

“Somewhere in 2005, 2006 it began to hit middle class America," Case said."So, that what we see are a large numbers of young, white males, college age and on up.”

Case started noticing a spike in overdoses in 2008 when the health department was preparing for the H1N1 pandemic that, Case says, eventually only killed one person in the area. Meanwhile, there were 51 heroin overdoses that year compared to 30 in 2007. From 2008 on, heroin deaths continued to rise. Case expects 85 to 90 people will die of an overdose this year.

"If as many people died from the flu as died from heroin, people would be up in arms," Case said. "They would be very alerted and aroused. I’m very aroused by the number of people I see dying from heroin because I know it’s just the tip of the iceberg."

Because heroin is illegal, the current epidemic is seen by officials as a problem best handled by the police. And this is what they know so far: According to St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch the heroin on the streets right now is mostly being produced in Mexico and coming to the St. Louis region from Chicago. It’s cheaper than ever, costing less than a six pack of beer. And it’s more potent than ever.

“The problem is with heroin is when you put it in your body there’s no way when you look at it to tell how much potency is there," Fitch said."So, you may have tried it ten times and it had a 20 percent, 30 percent potency level. And the next time you try it it’s got 85 percent. And that’s how people die.”

Here’s something else police know: Heroin is not just being used by hardcore drug addicts in back alleys.  It’s in the high schools. It’s being offered to kids at parties and some are dying the first time they try it.

A three-pronged approach to the problem

Fitch says, the police are taking a three-pronged approach to the heroin problem: education, treatment and enforcement.

They know it costs three times as much to incarcerate someone for using drugs than it does to treat them. So, if you’re arrested and police suspect you’re using drugs, even if you don’t have any on you, they will give you a two-sided card. On one side it has treatment options and a phone number to seek help. The other side let’s you know how you can cooperate with the police.

“We want to find out where you got this stuff because we have to go to the source of whose selling this in our community," Fitch said. "So on that side of the card it has our phone number for our drug task force, they can do it anonymously. We’re hoping that if they really want to get better they recognize the fact that this source has to be cut off.”

And if you cooperate with police, and go through treatment, it’s possible to keep the incident off your permanent record.

But overcoming a heroin addiction is difficult. And only 5 percent of people are successful in the long-term. Dan Duncan is the director of community services at the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse. Of all the drugs out there, he thinks heroin is number one in terms of potential for addiction and death. And to many who have been using for several years, the withdrawal symptoms are too hard to bear and they use again. Imagine having the flu, but a hundred times worse.

“The craving is almost immeasurable," Duncan said."The body and the mind is saying 'I have to have it.' And this goes on for days and they just get worn out by it.”

Duncan says the prevalence of prescription painkillers like oxycontin can be blamed for this reemergence of heroin use. It is the new gateway drug. Kids are using it for recreational purposes.

“It’s just a matter of time before they’re exposed to heroin," Duncan said. "The same people that are dealing those drugs on the street are the same people that are going to expose them to heroin. And heroin is now cheaper than those prescription drugs.”

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse is partnering with the St. Louis County Police Department and other organizations to confront the heroin situation in the community. Marilyn Smashey, whose 18 –year-old son Taylor died participates in rallies trying to raise public awareness about heroin. She holds a sign warning parents. It reads “I was just like you, until I found my son dead.”

“When you look into the face of death, and it is your child, you are forever changed," Smashey said. "You will never be the same person you were before that moment. Every day when I get up in the morning, that is the very first vision that I open my eyes to. I can’t help that, I can’t turn that off.”

As part of their community outreach efforts, St. Louis area police and drug counselors are holding town hall meetings to discuss the epidemic. The next one is August 29 at Oakville High School.

Resources related to heroin and heroin addiction:


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