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The Truth About Teens and Heroin

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By Tony O'Neill

08/29/12

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The first opiates that Whitney, like many of her peers, used were prescription pills.  “I experimented with Vicodin, Percocet, OxyContin and other opiates before I tried heroin,” she says, adding that heroin wasn’t easily available to her until she moved from Cody, Wyoming to Seattle.” In Seattle, she ran with an “uppers, party crowd” who introduced her to drugs like cocaine, ecstasy and Adderall. She soon found herself in rehab. 

“I was there for 30 days and then moved to a halfway house in St. Paul, Minnesota,” she recalls. “I stayed clean for three months, moved to Minneapolis, met a boy in the program and started using heroin with him. The first time I tried heroin I injected it and that’s how I used it from that point on.”

We need more education about opiates in schools.

Alex, who was introduced to heroin by a boyfriend, shares a similar story. “I got into a relationship where the guy I was dating was a total addict,” she says. “I found him using one day and told him to give me some, which was the first time I used heroin. I injected it for the most part, though I also smoked it at times.” While heroin was the first opiate she tried, she’d previously used pain medications. And finding heroin was much easier: “There is a huge abundance and it’s fairly cheap,” she explains. “It took me about a year to go from buying from a simple drug dealer to buying direct from the Mexican mob in Portland.”

Talking to these ex-drug users, I was painfully aware of both the parallels and vast differences in our initiation into the junk world. I began using in the 90’s in Los Angeles—when cheap, strong black tar heroin was everywhere. When I was first offered smack, I was intrigued. As a lifelong admirer of the likes of Lou Reed, William Burroughs, Lenny Bruce and Chet Baker, I suppose I’d been subconsciously priming myself for a life submerged in negatives pleasure of dope. Hell, to many of these kids I wonder if Kurt Cobain would seem like a hopelessly outdated junkie archetype. But one of the common themes in our stories seems to be the ineffectiveness of drug prevention education. I was a child of the “Just Say No” 80s who decided to say “yes.” For the likes of Whitney and Alex, it was all about DARE.

“I participated in the DARE program when I was very young and learned about drugs in health classes and other drug awareness programs in high school,” Whitney tells me. “I honestly didn't think much of it and thought that I would never ever use any of those drugs so I didn't really take the information seriously.”  

The ineffectiveness of DARE is a sentiment echoed by Alex. While it taught her that “heroin was a bad idea,” she admits that "I am the type of person who learns the hard way—through my own mistakes and experiences.”

Frank Greenagel agrees that current educational programs aren’t responding to this new crisis. “We need more education about opiates in schools,” he says. “Schools are educating about alcohol, marijuana and cocaine—not about painkillers. That kind of education is easy to implement and pretty cheap to do.”

Whitney feels that over-prescribing doctors are at the root of the problem. “Painkillers are over-prescribed in the US and that they are too accessible to young people,” she says. When I bring this up with Greenagel, his response is more measured. While he understands the urge to crack down on over-prescribing doctors, he strikes a note of caution. “It’s very American to have this knee-jerk reaction—we gotta get rid of all pills! I’m no fan of the pharmaceutical companies but for people who truly have pain, those opiate painkillers work better than anything else and they have a right to get and use them.” Indeed, the growing panic over painkillers is already having a devastating effect on legitimate pain patients.

For the final word, I spoke with Carlos, a 59-year-old addict who is the handyman for an apartment building in the Bronx. Carlos looks a little like Charles Bronson’s older, degenerate cousin and is on the methadone program these days. His arms are covered with old track marks and prison ink depicting images of saints and portraits of his many grandchildren. I have known Carlos for a few years and his recollections of scoring in bombed-out buildings in Alphabet City—an area that is now typified by high-end boutiques and trendy restaurants—are a signifier that we, too, are from different sides of a generational divide.

I ask him about the younger generation of users and his take on the prescription pill epidemic. “Kids these days don’t know how to handle themselves,” he laughs over coffee in a Queens Boulevard McDonalds. “They [are] all raised on that milk-sugar pharmacy shit. No street smarts. Look at that fucker who killed all those people in the drugstore.”

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