The Junkie Legend of Philly's Pill Hill - Page 2

By Jeff Deeney 11/25/12

Philly's open-air market for Oxy was about as safe as street dealing gets. Then the cops shut Pill Hill down. Now opiate addicts are in a lot more danger.

Philly's Pill Hill photo

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The roiling chaos and danger of Saturday night in the Badlands may have been thrilling when I was 20 but was less so as I was looking at 30. I didn’t want anything to do with those old dope corners when I picked up OC; I wanted a low-risk, low-drama, reliable way to get high. I was willing to pay a premium for pharmaceutical-grade drugs whose contents were regulated, as opposed to street bags of unpredictable potency that every five years or so lay waste to local addicts. I remembered all the beat bags I ever bought, bags that looked like dope during a rushed hand-to-hand street transaction but when I got home proved to be fake, gelling up into a semi-solid mess in the cooker. I wanted to know exactly what I was getting for my money. I wanted to use it with the confidence that, as an experienced addict who knew his tolerance and respected the drug’s overdose-inducing potential, there was little risk I would wind up blue faced and stiff as a board lying on my bathroom floor after getting off.

The easy times didn’t last, of course. Eventually my habit got so bad that I couldn’t put enough pills together by working the phone and had to hit the streets.

In those years prescription drugs had their own dedicated black market known as Pill Hill, at the intersection of Seventeenth and Jefferson streets in North Philly. The neighborhood was poor and blighted but had nowhere near the violence of the heroin corners of the Badlands.

Pill Hill had long been where off-duty corner hustlers went to get their “water,” as codeine cough syrup is known on the streets. Combining the benzo Xanax with codeine syrup became popular—a combination branded “pancakes and syrup”—and the area’s reputation as the pharm-dope hot spot was secure. Since it was often dealers buying off of other dealers, it was also known as an orderly, even businesslike, scene. From 1995 to 2001 only 19 of the city’s 2,518 homicides occurred at Pill Hill. There were 20 times as many murders near heroin corners during the same period. The ratio of nonfatal shootings was similarly skewed, with the Badlands enduring a veritable bloodbath. Pill Hill might not have been as safe as copping off a dirty doctor, but it beat the alternative of maybe taking a bullet to get a bundle.

When OxyContin arrived on the scene luring a skyrocketing population of new, young prescription-drug abusers to Seventeenth and Jefferson, the neighborhood surprisingly became no more violent. Violence on the Hill remained roughly the same as before even as drug sales boomed; from 2001 to 2004, when the neighborhood was doing heavy trade in OC, only seven of the city’s 1,277 homicides took place near what was a hopping, around-the-clock open-air market for painkillers. Meanwhile, heroin corners remained drenched in carnage, with gun violence becoming an intractable disease that spread to the entire surrounding North Philly community.

Ex-hustlers who sold OxyContin on Pill Hill attribute its relative nonviolence, not surprisingly, to their own professionalism. They ran their corners like businesses selling pricey niche products to consumers with access to money. Demand was high; supply was controlled by a small number of players making way too many profits to let unnecessary violence draw negative attention to the scene. They also say that they intentionally kept their corners quiet so inexperienced pill addicts new to copping wouldn’t be scared off. Their analysis rings true to me. I sometimes went to Pill Hill with huge sums of money to buy 80 mg pills at $40 a pop. I never got robbed or jumped, despite being a ripe target for a stickup.

On a typical Friday night, the atmosphere of Pill Hill was fairly relaxed, even as the busy corner buzzed with black-market commerce. The block was lined with tall brownstones; many were abandoned and, according to hustlers who worked the corner, served as stash houses, holding more painkillers than a pharmacy. Hustlers lined the stoops along the street and shouted out to drivers who looked interested: "Oxys, Percs, Endos, Vikes, syrup." Whatever your twist was, they had it. My coke dealer had introduced me to a girl who lived at the nearby Norris Apartment high-rise housing project, knew all the Pill Hill hustlers working the corner and would negotiate deals for me. Every transaction was comparatively safe, even if my dope-sick nerves had me on edge.

Tamper-resistant Oxy puts greater pressure on users to switch to heroin, and the message around increased harm for doing so has gained new urgency.

A confluence of forces has largely killed off Philly’s Pill Hill. When news of the “Oxy epidemic” spread, the police department’s narcotics unit targeted the neighborhood. Around that time developers began buying up abandoned properties to rehab and rent to students attending nearby Temple University. More recently, with the new tamper-resistant OC that requires a complicated "cold water extraction” process to break down into snortable or injectable dope, many Oxy users are switching to heroin—and have to relocate their daily routines across town to the still brutally violent Badlands, where they take bigger risks.

That opiate addicts will drop pricey pills for cheaper heroin if there’s a black market for it nearby is not a new discovery. As early as 2005 the Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter published their findings that OxyContin was a gateway drug to heroin among young users. But tamper-resistant Oxy puts new and greater pressure on users to switch, and the message around increased harm for doing so has gained new urgency in the media.

This was the dilemma I faced the day I dialed a phone number to see if I could get a detox bed. As my addiction grew, my ability to keep a job disappeared. With no income and a $200 or more per day habit raging, my savings quickly dwindled. I didn’t want to get back into injecting drugs and risking disease, violence and arrest, but I knew that for $10 I could get a bag of dope that would hit me as hard as an 80 mg Oxy that cost $40. Market forces were pressuring me to assume greater risks—or enter rehab. That decision would have been made even harder had my beloved crush-and-snort OCs been replaced with the tamper-proof version.

I got a detox bed and got clean rather than pick up the needle again. But not every Oxy addict is capable of getting clean. Some don’t want to. I suspect that many younger users who are on the front end of their addictions—as opposed to winding down as I was—will embrace the chaos and danger of the heroin scene the same way I did when I was their age. As a social worker who still visits my old copping grounds on a daily basis, I see fresh young faces popping up on Kensington Avenue all the time. I wish them luck in avoiding the diseases, violence and prisons where injection drug use often leads.

I look back with a conflicted sense of gratitude that OxyContin was easy to get on the streets during the time I was abusing it. This isn’t to exonerate OC manufacturer Purdue Pharma for engaging in epic acts of corporate malfeasance by minimizing the risks, especially the fierce addictiveness, of their opiate-pure pill even as they incentivized America’s doctors to prescribe it as widely as possible. A smoother-running, more effective drug-dealing operation can hardly be imagined, raking in maximum profits regardless of the havoc it wreaked on poor communities. And when Purdue got busted, no one spent a day in jail; the 10-figure fine was just the cost of doing business.

But in my case, as someone who probably would have been abusing heroin if I hadn’t had a safer alternative, in some perverse way OxyContin may have saved my life.

Jeff Deeney is a Philadelphia social worker and a writer who is in recovery. His column, "Street Beat," runs regularly in the The Fix. He is also a contributing writer at The Daily Beast.

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Jeff Deeney is a social worker, freelance writer and recovering addict in Philadelphia. He is a contributor to the Atlantic and has written for the Daily Beast, The Nation, and The Marshall Project. Follow Jeff on Twitter.