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Heroin's allure

Today’s teens are growing up in an era where society treats prescription medications as a cure-all - "a pill for every ill."

“We have created a societal culture that is, quite frankly, not holistic,” says Paul Friday, a criminologist at UNC Charlotte who has studied local drug use for years. “It is a culture that will use substances to solve our problems.”

The leap between popping pain pills and using heroin is not a big one. Like heroin, prescription painkillers such as OxyContin, Percocet and Vicodin are opiates (derived from opium). In the past few years, as states began cracking down on “pill mills” and the practice of “doctor shopping” for prescriptions, painkillers became more expensive and harder to obtain. As a result, some addicts began switching to heroin. “The epidemic use or abuse of pharmaceuticals created generations of opiate addicts,” says Drug Enforcement Agency agent Jeff Ferris, supervisor of a high-intensity drug trafficking area in Charlotte.

In the metro area covered by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police, heroin overdoses (including non-fatal overdoses) more than doubled in two years. There were 32 overdoses in 2011, 55 in 2012 and 73 in 2013, says CMPD Lt. Nathan King. Of those 73 overdoses, at least 15 were fatal. Reid Fliehr, the 25-year-old son of famous wrestler Ric Flair, died after overdosing on a deadly cocktail of heroin and prescription drugs in March 2013.

Many people struggling to kick their addiction look much like any other teen or young adult. The drug is on an upswing in south Charlotte, Ferris says. Bob Martin, director of the Mercy Horizons substance abuse treatment center, did a study of his heroin clients’ zip codes. He found that they came from the city’s most well-off areas - Mint Hill, Matthews, Ballantyne and Raintree. They include lawyers, nurses and other young professionals. The typical patient is white and upper-middle class.

From Pineville to the university area and up into the Lake Norman area, heroin use is spreading, says Lt. King of CMPD. Officers have seen teenagers as young as 14 to 16 years old getting hooked. They have also seen more heroin users getting involved in property crimes. CMPD made 171 arrests for possession or sale of heroin in 2012, and 235 in 2013 - an increase of 37 percent. Recent arrests included two teenagers from Raintree and Ballantyne accused of dealing heroin from one of their homes.

According to the allegations outlined in court records, a 17-year-old former Ardrey Kell High School student was dealing from his house in the Raintree development. He worked with an 18-year-old girl who had recently graduated from Ardrey Kell and lived in Ballantyne. Detectives found 29.3 grams of heroin in the boy’s home, resulting in 16 drug-related charges, including one that could lead to 18 to 23 years in prison. The girl faces nine drug charges.

Kathleen Kane-Willis, director of the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy at Roosevelt University in Chicago, recommends giving kids specific information about the consequences of individual drugs. Teenagers often do not know how easily or quickly they can develop an addiction to heroin. Living in a wealthy neighborhood or attending good schools will not protect them, either. Studies have shown that “more disposable income, more money in allowance leads to more drug use,” Kane-Willis says.

Last June, Lt. Nathan King of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s south Charlotte division began gathering data about the city’s heroin problem. His findings are alarming. Of the 235 individuals arrested for heroin-related crimes in 2013:

  • Seventy-nine percent were high school graduates, and 17 percent used while still in high school
  • Seventy percent attended and/or graduated from Charlotte-Mecklenburg high schools - 27 percent from Ardrey Kell; 20 percent from South Mecklenburg; and 17 percent from Providence High. This accounts for 64 percent of the total arrests.
  • One-third of the arrestees began heroin use between ages 16 and 18, with some as young as 14. Age of first use had been between 18 and 24 in the past.
  • More than 83 percent of users first smoked and/or snorted the drug. By the time of their arrest, almost 79 percent were injecting it.

Statistics show that much of the heroin use is concentrated in the southern portion of Mecklenburg County, which borders many of the more affluent areas of Union County. Historically, trends in Charlotte eventually flow over into Union County.

Lt. King's goal is to reach kids who are still experimenting with heroin, snorting or smoking it, but have not started injecting it. Once they become addicted, the problem becomes infinitely harder to solve.

“High schoolers do not understand that they can try this one or two times and be addicted to it for the rest of their life,” said King. “Right now they are treating it like a toy and they do not realize it will own their life.”

Written by: Excerpted from an article by Lisa Rab in Charlotte Magazine
Posted: Jun 02, 2014 by Lisa Callaham

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