by Austin Pacheco.
Jake Gordon sits on his bed recalling his memories of heroin use, of all the times he shot up. He had been using just over a year and he wondered if all the choices that he made in that time were worth it. That’s when he remembered a conversation with an old friend. He was deeply concerned with what Gordon was doing to himself and wanted to help.
“An old friend asked me why I had been shooting up and I didn’t want to tell him simply because he wouldn’t understand,” said Gordon, 20, a dietary aide at South Shore Hospital in Whitman, MA. “I knew I was happier than he was when I was shooting up. I knew I was more content. My life isn’t perfect now, but it’s stable. I guess that’s all I could ask for really.”
Gordon, who has been clean since 2012, was once part of the increasing number of heroin dependents and users in the United States. Because of the sharp rise in the past decade, heroin dependency is quickly becoming an epidemic.
About 1.6 percent of Americans aged 12 and over have used heroin at least once in their lives, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The survey found that 669,000 Americans reported using heroin in 2012. It also found that the number of people meeting the criteria established by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as being heroin dependent had more than doubled from 214,000 in 2002 to 467,000 in 2012.
Derived from the Asian opium poppy plant, heroin can either be smoked, inhaled or injected. All three methods deliver the opioid to the brain quickly, where it affects the parts of the brain responsible for producing that sense of “reward” to the body. After repeated use, the user often develops a habit for the drug.
The NSDUH reports that 23 percent of heroin users become dependent after their first use. This was the case for Ivanna Mendez, 19, a student at Bronx Community College in the Bronx, NY.
“I had just turned 17 when I first started shooting up,” Mendez said. “I think, like, within two weeks, I was already hooked. I was long gone and at that point, it felt like I just wasn’t myself anymore.”
Gordon also became addicted quickly, within the first week of using he says.
“When I first tried it, the needle seemed too scary to me so I just decided to snort it,” Gordon said. “My second time though, that’s when I went for the injection. From there on, I was mostly injecting because I couldn’t get that same feeling from the other ways. It was like nirvana.”
Experts say the reason for the rise in heroin use is often found sitting in bathroom medicine cabinets.
Increased heroin addiction has been linked to an increase in the prices of prescription drugs, a study done by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence says. The study shows that adults who tend to abuse prescription drugs more than others, tend to switch to heroin. They make the switch because heroin is now much cheaper and easier to attain than prescription drugs.
Mendez said that before she started using heroin, she had frequently illegally purchased or stole prescription painkillers such as Vicodin and Oxycodone.
“My weekly allowance went straight to the painkillers and then I had heard about how cheap heroin was,” Mendez says. “It was better for me, not health-wise though. I could spend less money and still get the same high. I think that’s why I was attracted to it so much.”
Janelle Martinez, 40, is a counselor and recovery addict at Inland Valley Recovery Services. She believes that the rise in addictions and usage lies in the user’s family structure, or lack of one.
“We have dependents come in, probably 19, 20 years old and most of them come in by themselves,” Martinez said. “There’s no family with them, no support. They send their children on this journey and expect them to make it on their own, with joint help from us. We can’t be the only support for these people.”
The rehabilitation process at Inland Valley Recovery Services starts at 18 and Martinez says that this is where she sees most of the families of young dependents.
“This is where you see most of the families of the dependents at check-in,” Martinez said. “It’s rare that we have a dependent check themselves in, there are usually family members or some type of support by their side. There needs to be more of this earlier on in the addiction process. I believe it makes a difference.”
Heroin dependents are starting to join the rehabilitation program at Inland Valley Recovery Services in higher numbers than recovery specialist Isaac Caballero, 54, has seen in his 10 years working there.
“I hadn’t noticed the rise of heroin dependents until there were less amounts of meth dependents checking in,” Caballero said. “I think the amount of dependents we have in both the detox and residential programs has grown significantly in the past three years or so.”
Caballero also says that heroin dependents are getting younger and he says that drop in age is really eye-opening.
“Before we used to get 30 year-olds, sometimes people in their 60’s, come into the program,” Caballero said. “And now most of the dependents that come in are pushing 18 and it’s kind of frightening. I think the average age of the dependent who checks in is about 21. It’s obviously getting worse.”
Caballero noted that within the last month that about 35 heroin dependents were checked into the rehab program. Unlike Jake Gordon, Ivanna Mendez has yet to check herself into rehab. She says that she feels she can kick this habit by herself.
“I technically haven’t stopped using, really,” Mendez said. “It’s been about a month now since I last shot up. It’s a struggle to not want it, but I’m learning to cope with it. I have some faith in myself that I’ll get through this.”
Martinez says kicking the drug is hard, but it’s not impossible.
“The first step to curing this disease is realizing that you have a problem,” Martinez said. “We send them to detox and give them the moral support that they need to get through this and educate them.”
In short, the dangerous rise in heroin use and addiction can be credited to the rising prices of prescription drugs. Cheaper and easier to purchase, heroin gives you the same high that the prescription drugs would, just at half the cost. The lack of education about the drug and almost non-existent family dynamic also plays a role in the rise of addiction and use. As Martinez said, first-time users and habitual users tend to be detached from their families.
“The close relationship with the user’s family definitely factors in,” she says. “The parents also could be users themselves and this creates curiosity for the first-timer and that usually baits them into trying it.”
Law enforcement has also seen heroin use skyrocket in the past years and Detective Sylvia Ruize, 50, with the Los Angeles Police Department says that she agrees but not as serious in comparison with other drugs.
“There’s no doubt about it, it’s definitely widespread throughout the country,” Ruize said. “I’ve worked in narcotics assignments for 17 years and in that time I have seen countless heroin-related arrests as well as search and seizures. In the past five years, I haven’t seen a huge change due to the other drugs that are in the city, such as marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamines. Those three are most common.”
Ruize also says that the drug isn’t prejudiced and that it afflicts different people in different neighborhoods.
“The department can easily recognize the areas where narcotics are bought, sold and used,” Ruize said. “We tend to look for neighborhoods that are victimized by home and auto burglaries as these crimes usually are consistent with heroin addicts. The need for money is important so that the individual can buy their next fix.”
Ruize also says that highest concentration of heroin addicts reside in the Central Division, which is where Skid Row is located.
“The numbers of homeless addicts there are getting higher in number,” Ruize says. “The hundreds of people sleeping on the sidewalks and make-shift tents are there due to their addictions.”
The city of Los Angeles does offer several resources for addicts but Ruize says that unless they don’t want to stop using and get help immediately, then nothing will change.
If you or someone close to you has a drug problem, call Inland Valley Recovery Services at 909-932-1069 or visit their website at www.inlandvalleyrecovery.org. You can find them at 916 N. Mountain Ave, Suite A, Upland, CA 91786.