The kids call it “H.”
Jackee was 16 when she smoked it for the first time. It was the summer of her sophomore year and her boyfriend asked her if she wanted to get loaded with some other kids. She had already been smoking methamphetamine on-and-off for three years, so trying heroin didnâ€™t seem like a big deal to her.
â€œI thought about it for like five seconds,â€ the 18-year-old Yorba Linda resident says. â€œAnd then I thought, ‘Eff it. Why not?’â€
As she sat in her boyfriendâ€™s car, Jackee watched one of the teens press the “sugar” to the foil. He lit a match beneath the foil and held it as Jackee sucked the smoke through a hollowed out pen.
She took five hits, drawing the smoke in deep each time, taking care not to waste any. When she was done, she lay back on the grass next to her boyfriend and stared at the sky. She felt invincible.
Those skies darkened quickly. Jackee began smoking heroin daily, using greater quantities as her tolerance increased. Within weeks she had developed a $200-a-day habit that she would go to any lengths to feed.
Jackee is not alone. Her story is becoming all too familiar in the tidy tracts and upscale enclaves of Orange County, where a wave of teen heroin use has left authorities and parents grappling for answers.
At Touchstones, an adolescent residential treatment facility in Orange, program director Patti Ochoa says three out of 16 clients are primary heroin users, a figure she calls “unusually high.”
At Twin Town Treatment Center, an adolescent outpatient treatment center in Los Alamitos, the figure is higher: two out of five of their 13 to 17-year-old clients now cite heroin addiction upon admission.
Primary counselor Chris Logan says heroin, â€œseems to be the thing to do right now.” These are not street kids, he stresses, but kids from middle-income families.
At Alternative Options, an intensive outpatient treatment facility in Placentia, administrators say they rarely had heroin addicts at their facility a year ago. Today, six out of ten clients are being admitted with heroin addiction. The majority are females between 15 and 18 years old.
Sean Hogan, assistant professor of social work at Cal State Fullerton, says figures like those are considerably high for any population, not just teens. According to government statistics, approximately 5 percent of adolescents are admitted to treatment with heroin dependence, with most admitted with a marijuana-use disorder.
â€œEven if you back out those reporting marijuana as their primary drug of choice at admission, you still only get about 10 percent of adolescents reporting heroin as their primary drug of choice,â€ Hogan says.
Experts say that low cost, availability and the high that smoking heroin produces are fueling this new wave of young users.
According to U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officials, the heroin being trafficked from Mexico to Orange County is primarily black tar heroin and, to a lesser extent, Mexican brown. The low cost and increased availability of high purity heroin that can be snorted or smoked rather than injected with a needle makes it attractive to teens.
At Alternative Options, most of their teen clients begin using drugs â€œright out of grandmaâ€™s medicine cabinet,â€ program coordinator Linda Bates says. They progress to heroin when their Vicodin or Percocet habit becomes too expensive. She notes that prescription drugs often run $20 a pill or more, whereas a bag of heroin is fairly cheap.
â€œMany of these kids save up their lunch money and money mom gives them to buy heroin,â€ Bates says. â€œTen dollars at a time â€“ thatâ€™s enough to buy a small amount. You can get more for your money with the heroin.â€
She says what teens donâ€™t realize is that with heroin, addiction can be almost instant – usually right after their first use.
When teen addict Jackee smoked heroin for the first time, she wanted to use again right away.
â€œI thought, â€˜This canâ€™t be what everyoneâ€™s addicted to. It wasnâ€™t even that great â€“ I got sick!â€™ But I stopped getting sick after a while and I liked the numb feeling it gave me,â€ she said.
It wasnâ€™t long before Jackee was using heroin daily – about eight or nine balloons a day, she said, adding that a balloon costs about $25 in Yorba Linda. She started dating a dope dealer who brought her free heroin. She also had a part time job so she was able to buy balloons on her own.
Jackie began doing anything to get her dope.
â€œI was ditching school to get heroin. I would have heroin dealers bring me my dope at the campus because I would be kicking (having withdrawals) at school, lying in the bathroom stalls puking and shaking,â€ she said.
She stole money from her family and her employer. She volunteered for the snack shack at little league baseball games, stuffing twenties into her pockets when nobody was looking. She stole money and iPods from backpacks in the girlsâ€™ locker room at school.
â€œThis one guy I knew had over $100,000 from his parentsâ€™ deaths,â€ Jackee recalled. â€œHe was a heroin addict so I immediately became his friend and flirted with him and slept with him because he fed me heroin.â€
When Jackeeâ€™s parents took her to a hospital detoxification unit six months after her first use, she weighed 98 pounds, her hair was falling out in clumps and she couldnâ€™t last a day without heroin. Stories like hers are not unusual, according to Tammie Skonseng, a counselor at Alternative Options, who explained that heroin addicts will beg, borrow and steal to get their drugs.
â€œEven if they have to sell their body, they will do it. We donâ€™t find that with someone who is drinking or someone who is doing meth, but (heroin addicts) have to have it because they will be so sick without it.â€
The Orange County city of Placentia has been hit exceptionally hard by heroin use. There, police department officials say heroin arrests have shot up 150 percent in the past 12 months, primarily among 16 to 23-year-olds.
Police Sgt. Kelly Kenehan, who supervises the Special Enforcement Detail for gangs, vice and narcotics, has been involved in nearly two dozen heroin-related arrests involving teens and young adults in the past six months. In response to the growing problem, his unit has stepped up street enforcement, especially in the hard-hit north end of the city.
In September, law enforcement seized 100 pounds of Mexican brown heroin in adjacent Anaheim, believed to be one of the largest heroin seizures in California. But that has failed to stem the flow of the narcotic into Placentia.
â€œSome of the search warrants that weâ€™ve done and arrests weâ€™ve made show that people are driving up to LA anywhere from two to five days (a week) to pick up and distribute it within our city,â€ Kenehan said, noting that heroin is readily available outside the high schools and the streets that surround them.
In November, a 17-year-old Placentia boy nearly died from a heroin overdose. Since then, Kenehanâ€™s department has fielded calls from anxious parents asking about symptoms and paraphernalia associated with heroin use.
â€œParents are freaking out,â€ Alternative Optionsâ€™ Bates agrees, adding that most find it hard to believe the drug their child is using is heroin.
â€œBut addiction is addiction. Itâ€™s bad with any drug, but we just donâ€™t think of heroin as something thatâ€™s available here in Orange County in the high schools,â€ she says.
She cautions parents to pay attention to what their teen is doing.
â€œI think awareness is a big thing right now,â€ Bates says. â€œI think the community needs to get together and be aware. And watch. Because thereâ€™s a big thing going on.â€
For more of this week’s Introspect visit: http://www.dailytitan.com/2010/02/former-addict-intervenes and http://www.dailytitan.com/2010/02/touchstones-treatment.