Stanice Anderson remembers the sensation of floating that came after she injected heroin. She also remembers the agony of trying to quit—the stomach cramps, nausea, the feeling of desperation that she would never be free.
“The rush is euphoric. It felt like I was really light,” Anderson, of the District, told the AFRO. “There were no cares, no worries, no past. There’s just right now. I felt like it was floating and it was just beautiful, [but] you only have that for short periods of time, which is why you have to keep going back for more and more.”
That need to go back for more is fueling what law enforcement officials are calling an epidemic of heroin use. Men, women, many of them young, are finding their way to the highly-addictive drug. They are smoking it, snorting it and shooting it into their veins, shocking law enforcement officials and addiction counselors alike with the startling rise in its use in recent years.
Special Agent Joseph Moses of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s national headquarters in Washington D.C. said heroin has always been popular in urban cities, such as New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Baltimore.
In the last five or six years, however, the drug’s use has increased in those areas while it has also surged in places where it was once rare.
“What we are seeing is that it is no longer an urban drug,” said Moses, a DEA spokesman. “We are seeing it now in places where we had never seen it before—the suburbs and even poor, rural America. It’s no longer limited to a particular demographic or geographic area.”
The expansion of the drug’s use has had shocking consequences, Moses and other experts said. According to DEA statistics, the number of heroin overdoses increased by 45 percent between 2006 and 2010.
In Baltimore, the uptick in heroin use has caused deaths to increase exponentially, said U.S. Attorney for Maryland Rod J. Rosenstein.
“In Maryland, heroin deaths doubled from 2011 to 2012, then doubled again from 2012 to 2013,” he said.
In the District, U.S. Attorney for the District Ronald C. Machen prosecuted several heroin-related crimes last year. Among them:
-Feb. 2013: A D.C. man received 20 years after hiding heroin he received from New York in hems of dresses, lampshades, pencil containers and the linings of purses.
-July 2013: Sixteen people, including a Prince George’s County police officer, were charged with drug conspiracy for scheming to distribute heroin, cocaine, PCP, marijuana and methamphetamines.
-Aug. 2013: Three men were sentenced to long prison sentences for distributing heroin they procured from New York City after investigators seized more than 170 grams of heroin, $7,000 in cash and $25,000 in jewelry.
-Dec. 2013: Thirteen men indicted in an alleged drug conspiracy are accused of serving as “wholesale distributors” of heroin and cocaine.
Rosenstein and others said despite the increase, so far there has not been a notable surge in violence.
“It’s nothing like the crack wars in the early 90s,” Rosenstein said.
*Demand and Production Up
Though heroin use has been increasing steadily for years, the Super Bowl Sunday overdose death of actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman put it on the front page.
Rumors of a lethal batch of heroin began spreading around the East Coast in the weeks before Hoffman died, and heroin busts increased as law enforcement officers looked for it. Just two days before Hoffman overdosed, a DEA task force in New York raided a heroin mill in the Bronx, where they found 13 kilograms—about 29 pounds—of heroin. The take was estimated to be worth $8 million. Experts believe some of that heroin might have ended up in the Baltimore-Washington area.
Moses said much of the heroin the DEA is intercepting is coming from Mexico. Statistics from the agency show that the amount of heroin seized in border crossings almost quadrupled from 2008 to 2012 from 560 kilos to 2,100 kilos.
He attributed the increase to the nation’s problem with prescription drugs, specifically the opiates, like oxycodone or oxycontin, which became the focus of local, state and federal police agencies in recent years. After a series of high-profile raids and prosecutions of doctors for abusing their prescription writing authority, the supply dwindled.
“When users can’t get a supply of oxy, they move to another opiate which is heroin.
You see them moving from pills to smoking heroin to injecting heroin,” Moses said.
At the same time, he said, Mexican heroin production and Mexican trafficking is expanding. Demand is up at the same time as production.
“This intersection of events is all contributing to this trend,” Moses said. “We’ve gone on record as calling heroin use an epidemic at this point.”
*A Desperate Addiction
Anderson, now 63, a blogger and author who chronicled how she conquered her addiction in her book, “I Say a Prayer for Me: One Woman’s Life of Faith and Triumph,” sees the epidemic and its effects first hand. She spends her days working as an “addiction recovery expert.” She recently spent a month in the Grenadines helping officials to set up the nation’s first ever drug treatment center.
“I think people sometimes get addicted because of the emotional stuff they have going on. It makes using feel like an option, to get some relief,” she said. “When all that’s going on, and their foundation is shaken, then the drugs come along and they seem like a way to escape from that horror and trauma. A lot of those things go into creating an addict if not addressed.”
A derivative of the poppy plant, heroin is an opiate in the same family as morphine, which is used by doctors to control severe pain in patients, said Dr. Ozietta Taylor, a substance abuse counselor and an associate professor of substance abuse and abnormal psychology at Coppin State University in Baltimore.
Taylor said the use of heroin has increased among young people when they turned to it after sneaking their parents’ percocet and oxy.
Users often become addicted quickly.
“They go through withdrawal if they don’t have it,” Taylor said. “You see things like stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting and chills.”
Experts said a dose or “hit” of heroin” can cost as little as $10 on the street. It is often mixed with other ingredients such as strychnine, a crystalline substance used a pesticide, “which can make it more potent” Taylor said.
Rosenstein said much of the heroin that has led to deaths has been laced with fentanyl, a synthetic opiate that is significantly more potent than morphine.
Fentanyl-laced heroin is being blamed for more than 75 deaths across the country in recent weeks.
“People who can tolerate pure heroin may overdose if fentanyl is mixed in because it is far more potent,” Rosenstein said.
He had a warning for heroin users.
“People never really know what they are taking,” he said. “It may be pure…It may be mixed with something that makes it more [potent]. That’s one of the reasons why heroin is so dangerous. They never know what they are getting.”