Drug Information

Heroin hits home

Indiana Gazette:  August 26, 2003

The Series: Heroin is no longer a problem limited to inner cities. In recent years, use of the highly addictive and potentially lethal drug has spread to the suburbs and rural areas such as Indiana County.

Specialists in drug abuse predict the problem will get worse before it gets better.

Gazette staff writer Stephanie Bernat spent the past seven months investigating how heroin has gained a foothold in western Pennsylvania as the illegal drug of choice.

Heroin hits home

One man sold everything he owned to fund a heroin addiction that began when he was a teenager.

And he was lucky not to pay a higher price with his life.

Now, 20 years later, he talks about the development of his drug addictions, treatment and survival. "I was a junkie," said John S., who is a recovering multiple-substance addict - including heroin - at Gateway Rehabilitation Center's branch facility in Greensburg, an alcohol- and drug-dependence treatment center that accepts Indiana County residents for outpatient treatment.

"It was a scary thing," he said. "When you're an addict, you never know when death is around the corner."

Now 38 years old, John S. remembers when he was a "typical teen," drinking a few beers at parties and smoking marijuana.

"Kids always experiment with drugs," said Neil Capretto, medical director at Gateway's headquarters in Beaver County. Experimentation with marijuana makes a youth 50 to 60 times more likely to try heroin, Capretto said.

An 18-year-old receiving treatment at Gateway's Beaver County site said he was "addicted to marijuana," which then led to his abuse of prescription pills.

John S.'s experimentation also escalated right away, he said. He left home at age 15 and hitchhiked across the country, only to wind up in Los Angeles without a place to live. But that didn't stop his addiction.

A year and a half of surviving on the streets only added to his drug abuse.

"You name it," he said, "I've done it."

Next thing he knew, he said, he was shooting heroin and other drugs.

He described the power of an addiction, even to cigarettes, by telling how he learned to follow cigarette smokers down the street, waiting for a cigarette to be tossed to the ground so he could snatch it up to finish it.

And if nicotine had that strong of a hold, imagine the iron grip of heroin, a drug Capretto calls "powerful and addicting ... like quicksand."

"Almost everybody I see starts off snorting or sniffing," Capretto said, "but the vast majority of them within a few months switch over to needles."

Joe Diskin, case management supervisor at the Armstrong-Indiana Drug and Alcohol Commission, explained the escalation from snorting to injecting. A user's body acclimates itself to heroin, accepting heroin in the blood as normal, meaning a user will continually need more to feel high from it.

A user snorting heroin can easily build his tolerance to eight to 12 "stamp bags" per day to get high, each about the size of a sugar packet and costing about $10. Since snorting or smoking requires more heroin to get high than injecting, users switch to injecting to reduce the cost.

Whatever the method, a user's body continues to build tolerance to it, and ultimately the body needs heroin just to function normally. The desire to use outweighs the desire for food, taking care of children and holding a job, Diskin said. Users think about getting a fix first, then they try to function.

"You do them (any drug) to feel normal," John S. said. "You do them to get rid of the pain."

To support an ever-growing addiction, users usually turn to crime, theft and stealing, Capretto said. He's even seen girls as young as 14 prostituting themselves to fund their addictions.

Indiana County District Attorney Robert Bell said he knew of an area woman who traded herself to her heroin supplier.

Bell said he's also seen theft crimes - such as burglaries and home invasions - associated with heroin in Indiana County.

"People need money to buy their drugs," he said. "It's an amazing culture."

John S. said it took years to realize, but he couldn't stay a slave to his addiction. When he came back to Pennsylvania, he said his family helped him get into an inpatient-treatment center to "basically beat the needle."

Drugs, John S. said, brought him so far down. He said he's lost jobs, thousands of dollars in musical equipment and relationships with his family because they couldn't trust him after he stole from them.

Worse, he could have lost his life in a car accident or in an attempted suicide that he said was brought on as much by depression as by drugs, making it impossible for him to think clearly.

Diskin compared heroin addiction to alcoholism but said it is 10 times worse because it can happen in a short amount of time.

John S. is still recovering through intensive outpatient treatment at Gateway. He's working to get out of a romantic relationship he built with another addict, something he realized was a dangerous environment too close to the lifestyle he's worked to separate himself from.

He's secured a job and hopes to hang on to a house he just moved into.

"I don't have it all together. I'll never have it all together," he admitted, but he's slowly fixing himself back up.