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Heroin addiction and fatalities plague area youth

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 24, 2011 - The telephone call interrupted Brenda Huszar's heartbeat -- more bad news about her daughter. "Erica is in the hospital," a friend was saying on the other end of the line. "In Florida. And you need to come home right away."

Huszar, who lives in Webster Groves, soon learned that a drug dealer had dumped Erica in bushes near a hospital, where she was found the next day. She later went into a coma but eventually pulled through.

Huszar said Erica attended Kirkwood High School but fell in love with Florida after going there during a spring break. The daughter moved there, became a dancer and felt proud after saving enough money to buy a house.

Huszar was a construction contractor in Missouri at the time she moved to Florida to care for her comatose daughter. Just two days after she eventually took a new job in Florida, her daughter was caught in a drug bust and ended up in a female detention center.

Because Erica had many close brushes with death, Huszar says acquaintances used to ask "How many cat's lives does she have left?" The answer came in September 2009, when heroin reportedly killed her at age 25.

The single mom's cautionary tale was one highlight of a town hall meeting Thursday night to call attention to what authorities say is a heroin epidemic in the St. Louis region. The session, which drew about 100 people, took place at Pattonville High School in Maryland Heights.

Lt. Chuck Boschert of the St. Louis County Police Department said 60 people died of heroin last year. By the first quarter of this year, the county already had recorded 35 such deaths.

"If we keep up this rate, we'll have over 100 this year," he predicted. "The number has been steadily rising in the past 10 years. But in the past couple of years, it has really taken off."

A profile of the 60 would show that in the county, the victim is likely to be a white male, but Boschert noted that the problem cuts across racial, economic and geographical lines. The victims ranged from teens to around age 25.

The St. Louis city and county totals this year could point to a more serious problem, said Dan Duncan, director of community services for the St. Louis office of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse. He says the city and county recorded a combined total of 210 heroin deaths last year.

"We're on track for 300 this year if the number of deaths continues at the rate it has so far during the first quarter," he said.

Heroin is peddled in two forms. One is called black tar; the other is known as white China even though it comes from Mexico. Decades ago, black tar was the most popular and far less potent form than the heroin hitting the streets these days, authorities say. The darker form is cooked in a spoon, then injected into a vein.

In recent years, dealers have begun peddling white China. Much purer and more plentiful, heroin in this powder form is packed inside capsules, called buttons, that sell for $10 to $20 each. Unlike black tar, white China can be snorted or smoked.

"This makes it more relatable to youth who already have done things like snort cocaine or smoke marijuana," Duncan said. "To them, it's just one more drug. They don't understand the lethality. They are experimenting with it as if it has the potential for recreational use."

He says using heroin amounts to "playing Russian roulette. It can and does kill people, even when it's used for the first time. It slows down your respiration. If you take a strong enough quality of heroin, it will just stop your heart. And you die."

Everyone acknowledges that the region has been slow to react with fresh approaches to the uptick in heroin use. Boschert said arresting and convicting suspects have turned out to be only part of the answer. A bigger part of the solution, he and Duncan said, may turn out to be public education. That's why two more town hall meetings will be held this summer. In addition, an interactive heroin-specific website has been developed to educate youth, parents and others about the drug.

"We figure the best thing we can do right now, the most important thing we can do, is raise awareness," Duncan said. "It's key. Today's baby boomer parents are being blindsided by this much like their own parents were in the late '60's and early '70s by marijuana. These baby boomers would not have guessed that we were going to be looking at an epidemic use of heroin by kids all over the region."

Adding to the discussion about prevention was Kate Tansey, executive director of the St. Louis County Children's Service Fund. She told the audience the tax-supported agency was investing in a range of initiatives for youngsters.

Huszar, the mother of the heroin addict who died in 2009, intends to undertake a drug education campaign of her own. She will launch an online magazine, called Unhinge, to help addicts express their feelings through writing, photography and other creative forms.

The mother and daughter had moved back to St.Louis, where Erica sought to curb her addiction through methadone. One day she left to get carry-out food, which her mother said turned out to be a pretext for finding a dealer to supply her with heroin.

"She did not come back," her mother said.

Funding for the Beacon's health reporting is provided in part by the Missouri Foundation for Health, a philanthropic organization that aims to improve the health of the people in the communities it serves.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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