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
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
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
"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
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
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.