Heroin is Surpassing Cocaine As Users' Choice
May 26, 2003
The two drugs were once considered twin threats of equal
dangerousness, and Steven Richard knew them both.
First, the young car salesman from Sandwich fell for cocaine's
expensive, hyperactive high. Then, years later, he was introduced
to heroin pure enough to snort. Its euphoria came cheaper than
In 1992, heroin and cocaine
each drove about 11,000 addicts into state-funded treatment
centers in Massachusetts. But since then, the number of cocaine
admissions has steadily fallen while the number of heroin
admissions has steadily climbed. By 2001, 4,334 admitted patients
in Massachusetts named cocaine as their nemesis, while heroin
haunted 37,399, according to a report by the National Drug
Intelligence Center. Those numbers solidify the commonwealth's
position as one of a handful of states to see a dramatic rise in
heroin admissions accompanied by a steep fall in cocaine
''Heroin has emerged as the
greatest drug threat to Massachusetts,'' reads the report, which
was released this month. The yearly report, which comes as state
lawmakers wrangle over whether to cut funding to methadone clinics
that treat heroin addicts, blames the growth of heroin addiction
on fallen prices and increased purity that allows the drug to be
sniffed or smoked instead of injected.
The House would like to stop
paying for the clinics, but the Senate's proposed budget continues
The rise in heroin use is
ominous because the drug is far more likely to create a lifelong
addiction than cocaine, according to specialists and users.
''It takes a very long time to
conduct heroin treatment, and a lot of providers will tell you the
success rate is very low,'' said Jim Dreier, an analyst with the
Drug Intelligence Center, an agency within the Department of
Justice, based in Johnstown, Pa. ''With cocaine, there are higher
success rates for treatment. It is not as lengthy a process. . . .
The physiological dependence is not as strong.''
Heroin users make up only a
small percentage of all drug treatment admissions in most Southern
and Midwestern states. Clinics in California have seen a decline
in the number of heroin addicts who are being displaced by
amphetamine users, according to a Globe review of statistics
compiled by the US Department of Health and Human Services.
In New York, heroin admissions
have surpassed cocaine admissions, but the gap between the two
numbers is not nearly as wide as it is in Massachusetts.
''It's an East Coast
phenomenon,'' said Thomas Clark, Boston's former representative to
the Community Epidemiology Work Group, a federal program run by
the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which tracks drug-use trends
across the country.
The decline in cocaine
admissions has puzzled researchers, who say it could reflect
everything from supply patterns to regional drug fads to repeat
visits by heroin users, who, because of the difficulty of breaking
their addiction, may be trumping cocaine abusers at treatment
''The treatment system has a
limited number of slots, so as one goes up, the other almost has
to come down,'' Clark said. ''The heroin users are coming in and
displacing the cocaine users.''
Using data from treatment
centers may mask some of the cocaine usage, Clark said, because
cocaine addicts, who have no medically treatable symptoms of
withdrawal, have a harder time getting insurance companies to pay
But, if the decline in cocaine
admissions raises questions, the rise of heroin is an all-too
familiar tale. In the early 1990s, the same Colombian drug cartels
that sell cocaine on the East Coast decided to wrestle the heroin
market away from Asian producers. Their strategy: to push down the
price and make heroin so pure it could be smoked or snorted,
''It was a marketing
decision,'' he said, adding that there was a false belief that
snorting the drug or smoking it -- a practice called ''chasing the
dragon'' -- would not be addictive.
The price of a thumbnail-size
bag of heroin dropped from about $15 in the 1970s to about $5. The
average purity of heroin sold to small-scale users rose from 3
percent in 1981 to nearly 30 percent in 2000, according to
nationwide statistics compiled for the Office of National Drug
Control Policy. The purity of some heroin on Boston's streets has
been found to be as high as 70 percent.
Low prices and high potency
have fueled a new generation of heroin users in Massachusetts who
are, by and large, younger, wealther, and more suburban than the
heroin addicts of the past.
''I see people from the upper
middle class. I see 18- and 19-year-old kids,'' said Dana Moulton,
52, who once abused heroin and is now a project assistant with the
Massachusetts Organization for Addiction Recovery, a nonprofit
education group. ''I could see the transition. . . . In the 1980s,
you didn't see young people using heroin the way we do now. You
had to be in the loop'' to get it.
Unlike in California, where
much of the heroin comes from Mexico in forms too impure to
inhale, the purer heroin in Massachusetts began to attract a
following from people who had never used the drug.
One recovering addict at
Phoenix House Springfield Center, a state-funded residential
treatment facility in Springfield, recalls the disgust he felt for
heroin when he was in high school.
''It was taboo. [I had] the
mental image of a guy with hair down his back who never shaves and
weighs 100 pounds soaking wet,'' said the man, a 37-year-old
drywall finisher. ''I swore I would never put a needle in my
But, nine years ago, his cousin
told him he didn't have to use a needle, so he began sniffing it.
He got hooked, and could not believe how many of his co-workers
and acquaintances were sniffing heroin, too. He said he started
off buying it from teenagers on Blue Hill Avenue, he said, but
soon began to buy it from men in suits with offices on Boylston
''You get a business card, beep
them, they come see you, and go have a social drink over lunch,''
At $5 a bag, he said, ''I
thought I had discovered gold.''
Steven Richard, now 31 and
recovering at Phoenix House from his addictions, said snorting the
drug also lured him into becoming a user. ''I was always against
needles,'' he said. ''I never, ever thought that I would inject
Richard's journey toward
hard-core addiction began when he was a teenager who had moved
from Cape Cod to Florida to be with a girlfriend.
One day, he was driving down
the highway in Florida, and a friend passed him a pipe full of
crack. He puffed and nearly veered off the road. The hit was
instant. The next three years were sleepless and wired as he broke
into homes so he could afford to ''chase'' the high. Going to jail
at age 20 was enough to motivate him to stay clean, and he moved
back to his family's home on Cape Cod, got a job selling cars,
bought a house, and began living with with his girlfriend.
But seven years later, in 1997,
a childhood friend asked for a ride to Boston and, somewhere near
the Forest Hills T station, handed him a bag of heroin to snort.
He didn't resist, and the drug became a full-time addiction he
could afford on earnings from a paper route. ''There were nights
where I spent almost $1,500 in one night on cocaine,'' said
Richard. ''With heroin, $400 could last me close to a week.''
After a few years of sniffing,
he graduated to injecting the drug, asking a friend to do it the
first time because he was scared of the needle.
Now, five years, $60,000 in
credit card debt, and countless court arraignments later, what
public health officials call ''an epidemic'' has cost Richard not
only his home, but also the seven-year-long relationship that he
lost when heroin became his only passion.
''She's got a baby now,'' he
said wistfully of the girlfriend who married someone else. ''It's
been four years now, and I still think about it.''
This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 5/26/2003.
Globe Newspaper Company.