Heroin use is making a powerful and destructive comeback in Stanislaus County after peaking in the 1970s and early 80s.
Those who treat addiction say the use of the illicit drug appears to be growing dramatically, especially among youth, approaching methamphetamine as the drug of choice for addicts in the county one of the most notorious meth regions in the United States.
Thirty-three percent of people entering drug rehab in the county were seeking treatment for heroin, compared with 35 percent who identified methamphetamine as their drug of choice, according to a California Department of Health Care Services study conducted in 2012-13.
Heroin is classified as an opiate. Heroin and synthetic opiate-based pharmaceuticals like Vicodin or OxyContin are the drugs of choice of 44 percent of Stanislaus County addicts, the study says. Statewide, opiates and synthetic opiates make up 24 percent.
Heroin addicts come from all walks of life, from homeless people to societys top echelons. Academy Award-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died of an apparent heroin overdose last week.
Experts locally are especially worried about the number of teenagers and young adults who have started using the drug. Their addictions often begin with prescription drug abuse.
They arent the movie version of an addict who lives their lives in a bubble and arent connected to any family, said Dr. Marc Lasher, who helps operate a needle exchange program in Modesto and Fresno. We are seeing all these young kids coming in; its outrageous.
From the poor to the affluent, the young to the old and everyone in between, addiction knows no boundaries, said Trinidad Tarancon, program coordinator at Genesis, a Stanislaus County-operated methadone clinic.
It attacks anyone, whether you are a doctor or a lawyer or a mechanic or a student. The disease is not prejudiced to any one person, she said.
The increase in the use of heroin isnt confined to Stanislaus County. Nationally, heroin use increased 79 percent from 2007 to 2012, with 669,000 people in the United States reporting they used the drug, according to a report by Bloomberg News.
There is nearly always a progression to heroin from other drugs. People start using drugs or alcohol to party, get high and have fun. But when that lifestyle escalates to an opiate addiction quickly, they are using it to feel normal and to function, Tarancon said.
A 28-year-old former addict who asked that he not be identified for this story said after just one night of snorting heroin, he woke up feeling sick. Rather than swear off the drug that gave him flulike symptoms as it drained from his body, he said the desire to use it again was so intense he asked how he could get more.
The choice began a seven-year battle with heroin addiction, during which he nearly died of an overdose, lost friends and family, was convicted of four felonies and did irreparable damage to his body.
The former addict panhandled to support his addiction, cashed fraudulent payroll checks and eventually started selling the drug. But before all that, he blew through half of a $30,000 trust fund.
He was 18 when he started using heroin and was among a rising number of young people experimenting with the drug.
A survey of the clients at Stanislaus Countys two methadone clinics in 2011-12 revealed that 69 percent started using opiates before their 26th birthday. A third were junior high or high school age.
The highest number of people arrested for heroin-related offenses are in their 20s, according to statistics from Modesto police.
Prescription drug addiction
Clinicians, law enforcement and recovery experts say most young peoples addictions start with the use of prescription painkillers.
Lasher said the availability of prescription drugs in the mid-2000s and misrepresentation about just how addictive OxyContin is by its makers was a major contributor to prescription drug addiction.
Purdue Pharma in 2007 was ordered to pay $634.5 million in fines when its top officials admitted to misleading the public by claiming the drug was less addictive than other painkillers.
Its clean. Its not made in a bathtub, its made in a pharmacy. So there isnt that fear with it as there should be, said T.J. Moffett, an officer with the Modesto Police Departments Narcotics Enforcement Team.
Youth might start by stealing it from relatives or have a prescription of their own from a sports injury or automobile accident.
My life changed when I had my wisdom teeth pulled when I was 16 years of age. I woke up from that dental operation with a high I will never forget, said Scott Miller, pastor for Celebrate Recovery at Big Valley Grace Community Church and a former opiate addict.
I didnt know it was going to change my life, I just remembered the emotional pull of how it felt. So when I got to be (18) and someone gave me that pill, I went, Thats the feeling and the rest was history.
Miller used heroin for a year but quit when he started stealing to support his habit. His prescription drug addiction lasted another 20 years; he maintained it by selling pills.
That was in the 70s, but prescription drugs now can go for as little as $3 a pill for less-potent drugs like Vicodin or as much as $30 a pill for OxyContin.
The pills become so expensive, (and users) get up to a 30-pill-a-day habit and they cant get (prescriptions) any more and end up buying them off the streets, and they are anywhere from $3 to $5 a pill (for Vicodin), Tarancon said. So instead of spending $150 for one high they can go out and buy a $10 sack of heroin and get the same high.
And heroin is easy to find, Moffett said. MNET arrested about a dozen street-level heroin dealers this week and seized nearly 8 ounces of heroin, he said, with more of both still out there.
The addiction is so strong that the move to heroin quickly escalates into intravenous use, even among the most squeamish of people who never could have imagined sticking needles into their veins.
Thats the downward spiral, because youll graduate from the pills to smoking the heroin, because its economically more feasible. And then you get introduced by someone who tells you to inject it because youll use less, Moffett said. Well, youll never end up using less, youll just end up getting addicted to that new level of high.
Once you end up using intravenously, the rate of recovery is very, very marginal, Moffett said.
Because relapse is part of nearly every persons journey to recovery, its difficult to put a number on recovery rates, Miller said. Based on his experience, he estimates 20 percent of heroin addicts will eventually recover for good.
The 28-year-old former addict has relapsed four times. Hed endure days of withdrawal symptoms and make it through periods of sobriety that lasted from 45 days to 15 months, but would throw it all away through a series of rationalizations and broken promises to himself.
Id end up making that choice that I can do it just one time. I didnt realize until seven years later that you cant do it at all, he said. I didnt realize it at the time, but I flushed it all down the drain my family, my friends, like my real friends who werent on drugs. Everybody was drifting away.
Miller said treatment can work for those who are willing. Too often he gets calls from the family of addicts who want him to fix their loved one, he said, but all they are doing is throwing away money on treatment and further enabling the addict.
Moffett said he regularly comes into contact with parents who refuse to see the evidence of their sons or daughters drug use because they cant let go of who that child used to be and accept who theyve become.
If you remove all the enablers from an addicts life, they cant survive for two weeks on their own, Miller said. Youve got to get those people out so the addict can reap what they sow, and thats pain.
He hopes addicts willing to make that first step will seek help whether it be a 12-step, faith-based program like Celebrate Recovery; treatment through methadone at Genesis; or any combination of the services offered in Stanislaus County.
The 28-year-old former addict got a period of tough love from his family. After a stay in residential treatment and continued Narcotics Anonymous meetings, he is approaching his fourth year of sobriety.
He is still working off a jail sentence for a sales conviction through the Alternative Work Program, and with four felonies under his belt has few prospects for employment.
His addiction left him with collapsed veins in his arms and poor circulation that leads to water retention in his legs. Hes also susceptible to infection.
I have dreams like everybody else. I didnt expect to go the route I did, he said. Im struggling, but Im still here.