Introspect: Heroin addiction sweeping through Orange County

In Features, Introspect, Top Stories

Jackee, an 18-year-old Yorba Linda resident, was 16 when she first smoked heroin. Photo by Nick Marley/Daily Titan Photo Editor

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 didn’t seem like a big deal to her.

“I thought about it for like five seconds,” the 18-year-old Yorba Linda resident says. “And then I thought, ‘Eff it. Why not?’”

As she sat in her boyfriend’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, “seems 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.

“Even 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,” 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 “right out of grandma’s medicine cabinet,” 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.

“Many of these kids save up their lunch money and money mom gives them to buy heroin,” Bates says. “Ten dollars at a time – that’s enough to buy a small amount. You can get more for your money with the heroin.”

She says what teens don’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.

“I thought, ‘This can’t be what everyone’s addicted to. It wasn’t even that great – I got sick!’ But I stopped getting sick after a while and I liked the numb feeling it gave me,” she said.

It wasn’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.

“I 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,” 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 girls’ locker room at school.

“This one guy I knew had over $100,000 from his parents’ deaths,” Jackee recalled. “He was a heroin addict so I immediately became his friend and flirted with him and slept with him because he fed me heroin.”

When Jackee’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 couldn’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.

“Even if they have to sell their body, they will do it. We don’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.”

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.

“Some of the search warrants that we’ve done and arrests we’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,” 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, Kenehan’s department has fielded calls from anxious parents asking about symptoms and paraphernalia associated with heroin use.

“Parents are freaking out,” Alternative Options’ Bates agrees, adding that most find it hard to believe the drug their child is using is heroin.

“But addiction is addiction. It’s bad with any drug, but we just don’t think of heroin as something that’s available here in Orange County in the high schools,” she says.

She cautions parents to pay attention to what their teen is doing.

“I think awareness is a big thing right now,” Bates says. “I think the community needs to get together and be aware. And watch. Because there’s a big thing going on.”

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15 commentsOn Introspect: Heroin addiction sweeping through Orange County

  • Great work Jennifer! We’ve posted a link to your story on

    Look forward to reading more of you. Parents and administrators don’t know jack about drug use among students. Good to have an ear into what’s rally going on.

  • Excellent article! I linked to you on my blog today as I have been trying to get this message across to more parents of OC Teens. My son started using heron at 17 and after a year and a half of living a nightmare (for both of us) he has 6 months clean and is doing really good.

    You did a great job of explaining the problem and describing what the life of a heroin addict is like. What seems to alarm most parents is how extreme this addiction is, unlike any other. Its physically addicting, and one use can often lead to addiction. If its not taken daily the withdrawal symptoms hit hard and are almost unbearable, not to mention dangerous. Addicts will do just about anything to keep from getting “dope sick”, stealing or selling yourself becomes second nature. Nice kids who have never been in trouble all their lives (my son included) will end up with felony records and in out of the prison system – or in the morgue.

    Something has to be done and parents need to be educated. Telling the teens not to get started in the first place is not the answer (Has that ever worked for anything? If so, there would never be a drunk teen behind the wheel of a car). I believe making it less accessible is a good first step.

    Here is my blog, “Recovery Happens” if you are interested. Some great links on the sidebar to other parents and more information on heroin and addiction. I am considering starting a parents group that is an alternative to Al-Anon for parents who are not ready to let their child “hit bottom” and/or cut them off from supportive encouragement.


  • and Im feeling good now!!

  • nuthing like a little Shanghai Sally in the afternnon.

  • It is about time Orange County steps it up with prevention and clean needle exchange programs….but i guess as long as the county makes money off their arrests, lack of future, and spread of disease it does not really matter, right? This should up the employment…or at least overtime pay.

  • Wow. It is amazing how fast a drug can take hold over an area. Just goes to show you that preconceived notions about drug abusers or heroin users should go out the window. After all, Orange County is one of the wealthiest parts of the country and obviously it wasn’t spared…

    Food for thought.

  • Great article! Thanks for this article it is so informative. Keep up the good work. More power and Godbless:)

  • concernedcitizen

    Kids should not be doing drugs. That being said if you want to fix the problem you need to view the entire picture. It’s safe to say 99% of the problems stem from the substances being illegal and not from the substances themselves. You want people to stop using dope? Want to get rid of the drug dealers who pry on your kids?

    step 1: Communities Demand to legalize the drugs – at first it sounds ridiculous but here is why it would work…

    1. Regulation – Remember alcohol prohibition? Most of us were not alive back in the 1920’s but basically the United States made alcohol illegal for awhile. This created an inflated market, decreased quality of product(dangerous), profits from illegality and and put the power in criminal elements hands. Did the new laws stop people from drinking? no! of course not. What it did do was divide communities, it made people fight with each other instead of working together. It didn’t take long to realize it doesn’t work. Regulation ensures quality control, safe access, and in the right hands could ensure harm reduction. Regulation takes the insidious profits out of the picture, take the profit out, you take the crime out too.

    2. Home Grown Theory – The united states is in a time of great stress. We are fighting wars on so many fronts it’s no surprise we are in debt. Did you know the US imports 90% of it’s illegal drugs? that’s right. Now imagine if those were grown and produced at home legally and under the regulation of the state? How many LEGAL jobs that would create? How much tax revenue would this bring in? Purity being regulated would ensure a safe environment, minimizing risk to self and others and treatment options for those that do use.

    3. Social attitude – Think of what a black mark that puts on society and the human world as a whole. Prohibition sets up walls not just borders of countries but walls between people and the connections that would have been there. Prohibition creates division, it creates stigma’s for example the assumption that alcohol is any safer than heroin. It’s all about social norms and how we integrate them into our existence. Orange County is a perfect example where many like to snub there noses at one thing but not the who looks down at the dirty heroin but have no problem drinking hard alcohol and downing the oxycontin or xanax daily..this needs to stop

    4. Education – All comes down to education..Personally despise Pepsi and Coca Cola and its makers/intentions..I would like it to be outlawed but I’d rather have people be properly informed and be free to make their own decision–information is what sets you free..If the parents and communities would just tell the kids the truth instead of just say ‘no’ we might actually get somewhere. Is little Johnny less likely to go out and do heroin if they are properly educated or less educated? come on people lay off the coca cola and lets get real. The schools can’t even afford pencils for the students yet officer law sure is getting paid pretty well to round up the mexicans. Good allocation of tax payer dollars right there..

    I’m going to end with stating I’m completely anti drug. In fact I believe human beings have every bit of technology in this moment in time to make life pretty kick ass for anyone who wants to participate positively. This cops vs shadow drug dealers vs society game needs to stop. Questions sometimes ring louder than speaking right at you so let me pose this for ya…I ask that you think critically you know that side of your brain you don’t use in church..

    Who really benefits from drugs being Illegal?? The community? The junkies?? The drug dealers, the cops, and the politicians?? The churches, alcohol/tobacco/pharma companies??

    okay now out of that group…

    Who stands to lose the most money and influence if the illegal drugs were legal??


    We blame the drugs but what voids are the kids trying to fill??

    Seeing the desperation the youth go through to try to seek some sort of temporarily relief from this constant bombardment of values from the community..shouldn’t that beg deeper introspection??

    American society is hardwired by the substances we ingest daily. The program is currently set on Caffeine, refined sugar/wheat, Tobacco, Alcohol, Pharma and Television. When X tells Y that it is “okay” to put substance A into your body but not substance B, when they are both equally dangerous..I’m gonna assume that X is more concerned about being able to have that Power to tell Y what they can and can’t do.. and that’s what you can watch out for from now on..If Y wants to do heroin, I’d rather have Y be able to get it safely rather than have to rob my house to get the money to do it.

    If we continue going down this path..we can expect half of society to be policing the other half..this is no progress at fact it’s on par with a dragon chasing its own tail…

  • Drugs cause more problems when illegal period..

    do your research people

  • The cops, the politicians, the drug lords are all in bed together. The mission is to keep America asleep, fighting one side while funding the other…the pyramid effect…wake up

  • Scary stuff. I am a parent of two that are 10 and 8 and I am scared to death hearing about stuff like this.

  • In some middle eastern and south east asian countries, the penalty of being carrying drugs is capital punishment. Now, I’m not advocating having the same here in the US, but maybe the ease with which heroin is available means the drug peddlers are not afraid of the consequences.

    Something needs to be done about this.

    Michael Holman,

  • I love , bookmarked for future reference

  • Prohibited drugs such as heroin will not bring out any positive effects to our body but instead it can destroy and ruins one’s life. Drug trafficking is one of the biggest problem nowadays and some people used their authority to transfer such drug from one country to another. The sad thing is innocent people are the one who carry all the burden due to its illegality and once they were caught they were put in prison.


    Communication is our best defense – 12stepplanet was created to collect stories about recovery – experience -strength and hope.
    We are hoping to have well known celebrities (many are role models)
    Who got caught up in todays society just like any of us regular folks. Addiction is cunning – baffling and powerful. Though I have worked at successful treatment center for 71/2 years. And know first hand that good communication can make all the difference in the world.

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