Searching for Drugs in a California ‘Heroin Alley’

By Kelly Burch 09/06/16

Addicts are flocking to the tiny, rural town of Oildale to feed their addiction in the open-air drug market known as "Heroin Alley."

Searching for Drugs in a California ‘Heroin Alley’

Much has been made of the opiate epidemic creeping into white, suburban America. Many parents are speaking out as their children—the cheerleader or the all-star athlete—succumb to addiction. Now, according to the Washington Post, many middle-aged white women struggling with addiction are finding their drugs in poor rural towns. 

“They don’t want their children to know. They don’t want their husbands to know. They don’t want their bosses to know. They are afraid of losing everything,” Robin Robinson, a pastor in the affluent suburb of Bakersfield, California, told the Washington Post. Robinson estimates that up to 40% of his 5,000 parishioners at the lavish Canyon Hills Assembly of God are addicts. 

The church established programs to help reach out to the addicts, but Robinson has noticed that the affluent, middle-aged white women in her congregation rarely take advantage of the programs. “They are the ones who are supposed to keep it all together when things go wrong. They don’t think they have the right to unravel,” she explained. 

Samantha Burton, 42, knows that well. She became addicted to opiates after her doctors cut off her painkiller prescription for irritable bowel syndrome. When she could no longer get pills legally, she began driving to Oildale to secure drugs in the town’s open-air drug market, known as “Heroin Alley.”

For five years, Burton came to Oildale, where 20% of the mostly white population lives below the poverty line. “I tried to dress down, but I still stuck out. I did not belong there,” she said. “It was incredibly dumb.”

Many people around Oildale report seeing women like Burton—middle-aged, well dressed, and clearly looking for drugs. “It’s obvious they don’t fit in,” Jesse Melendez, a person in recovery in Oildale, told the Post. “It’s obvious why they are here.”

Drug and alcohol deaths among middle-aged whites have quadrupled, particularly for women, according to a Washington Post report earlier this year. 

Unlike many demographic groups who are enjoying increased life spans, white Americans are the only group for which death rates are increasing, according to a study by two Princeton economists that was reported in the New York Times last fall. The trend, researchers found, is driven in large part by substance abuse. The only comparable example in recent history was the HIV/AIDS epidemic. 

“This is a vivid indication that something is awry in these American households,” Samuel Preston, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, told the Times after reviewing the research. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.