Chasing the Dragons 

Boise Police are alarmed at increasing heroin use among area teens

(Some names have been changed to protect the identities of juveniles.)

click to enlarge BINGO BARNES

Sixteen-year-old John started taking prescription opiates like Vicodin and Norco when he was 14. He got the drugs from a friend who had a large supply. John had only smoked a little pot before, and this was a good high so he kept doing them.

"I got hooked on these pills," he said. "Then one day I ran out and I said 'Shit, what to I do now?' You're already balls-deep in addiction and you don't know where to go. So this guy I was getting pot from introduced me to a drug called OxyContin. It's pretty much like synthetic heroin. Tenth grade was all OxyContin, every day in the bathroom at school snorting lines. Then not going to school at all, just going and getting all messed up all the time. It's a pharmaceutical, so it's hard to get. You've got to find someone who's really ill--on the brink of death--or someone who knows somebody like that to get a prescription. Then you have to wait for the prescription to get filled ... all that bullshit."

John's 17-year-old friend, George, is a rehabilitating heroin user as well. His story mirrors John's. He used prescription drugs all his life for a medical condition and found it easy to begin taking recreational drugs in pill form.

"It had a snowball effect," he said. "We were doing small-time selling to pay for our habits. It got bigger and bigger. It all started to get really shitty. Our addiction took us to some really deep places. We were getting really deep into debt because we needed those pills to stay normal. We had to be high all the time."

John continues, "So one day I was going to hook up some Oxy from a buddy. He had some black tar [heroin] and he said 'Here, try this, it's opium, it's just like OxyContin. You take three hits of this shit and you're good to go, just like Ox but cheaper and better.' So I started doing that every day. It was easier. You just had to make one phone call. Ever since then, from that day on, every day, I smoked it. But a lot of my friends around me were shooting it up. At school I would bring a couple of balloons [a heroin dose] with me. I had to have my dope at school or I'd freak out. I'd go in the bathroom for a half-hour, maybe more, then go back to class and fall asleep."

One balloon used to last both George and John a couple days when they started. Quickly, they progressed to smoking six balloons a day, then more. John had a $200-a-day habit before rehab, but for George, smoking heroin wasn't cutting it, and he progressed to shooting up.

"I didn't need as much because of that," said George. "I was only spending $100 a day."

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' National Household Survey on Drug Abuse anywhere from 1.5 to 1.8 percent of the population has tried heroin once in their lifetime. The National Institute for Drug Abuse cites that among 8th, 10th and 12th graders that average ranges between .3 and .6 percent of teens use it at least once every 30 days. A 2003 Partnership for a Drug Free America teen usage survey found lifetime heroin use remained steady throughout the 1990s at about four percent. Between 1993 and 2003, those same teens showed a five percent increase in knowing a close friend who had tried it; about 16 percent of teens. Looking at heroin incident statistics (including arrests) from Ada County, one might think there isn't a problem here at all--there are so few arrests. According to the Statistical Analysis Center of the Idaho State Police, there were just 82 incidents involving heroin in Ada County from 2000 to 2003 with approximately 346 grams seized by police.

Boise Police Sergeant Mike Harrington with the Boise Area Narcotics Drug Interdiction Task Force (BANDIT) said not to pay too much attention to those incident statistics, they are very misleading and subject to the nature how heroin is distributed and used.

"What we have seen, and what scares us right now is an increase in our schools, ages 16 to 18, sophomores, juniors and seniors in high school. It's pretty heavy in the schools. In our particular unit we are learning of more of an increase in our community," Harrington said.

"Especially among juveniles," added an undercover officer we interviewed with Harrington. "I don't recall 10 to 13 years ago dealing with juveniles and heroin at all. An occasional case here and there. It seems right now I'm hearing more on the juvenile side of things."

"One of the reasons we're seeing that is because the price of heroin has gotten really cheap," Harrington added. "A bag, or balloon, is typically $10 to $15--which is pretty cheap for a first or second-time user. They're going to have a pretty good high for a while. They'll use one, maybe two a day. After their tolerance goes up they need more--four a day. That's why were seeing it in kids. It's a cheap drug for them."

"All of it is coming out of Mexico," he said. "There are organizations out there much like in the other drugs we deal with. There's a head cheese, he has four or five underlings, they have four or five underlings. There's 40 people out there involved with selling heroin or whatever drug. Our job is to go out and get as many people as we can. So when you look at the stats, we may have only made seven arrest this year, but at that same time we may have 40 people in line to be indicted two years from now, especially with heroin cases."

Harrington said that single heroin arrests do not happen very often because the balloons containing heroin are so small that users, and small-time dealers, can swallow them or be hide them easily. Also, by the time they buy it, they're needing it and use it quickly.

"They shoot it up as quick as they get it," said the undercover officer.

"An investigation we did years ago took two years and had over 40 indictments," said Harrington. "They had wire taps, the DEA was involved, interpreters--the whole works. That's when we first learned about these organizations. It's just a big business. The dealers aren't as diverse as you think they are. They're mostly coming out of Mexico where the drug comes from. The majority of those 40 people were illegals. They all got sent back to Mexico or were prosecuted here. That hasn't changed since then. It's pretty much the same."

In Ada and Canyon counties there was a statistical peak in the mid 1990s with a lot of heroin related arrests, the result of a two-year investigation. "As soon as we do that," Harrington said, "those people are replaced. They go to jail and there's a group of people back in Mexico that come in again. They do it all over again. Our heroin problem, 90-95 percent, is from organizations like that."

Boise High School Principle Ken Anderson knows there is a problem with kids using heroin, but says "It is cyclical, it comes and goes in waves. A group of kids will come through that are using heavily then a year or two later it will lighten up. We seem to be in a cycle of use. When we suspect a student is under the influence we'll check it out. Sometimes we're wrong, but we do it."

Today, the school has programs for teens and parents when students are caught at school or during sponsored events. If students are involved in extracurricular activities such as athletics, then those activities may be suspended for off-campus incidents reported to school officials by police.

"We didn't have a set district policy 17 years ago when I came on," Anderson said. "There was no education program going on. Over the years we've tried to add remediation to teach kids and parents about substance abuse."

A first offense for a student caught at Boise High School, whether for drugs, alcohol or tobacco, involves various options including a combination of home suspension, drug assessment, alcohol and drug classes and student/parent classes. Students involved in extracurricular activities face stiffer punishments including suspension from activities in addition to the other penalties. Second offenses are much stricter. Other area high schools feature similar programs.

"Parents need to understand that they need to take a significant role," Anderson said. "We provide drug education for teachers and kids, but teachers are not drug recognition counselors. We have counselors on campus but parents need to know where their kids are, what they're doing. It's a responsibility of the community."

The problem may be bigger than police and school officials realize, according to John and George. "The problem is huge," John said. "This town is full of junkies. Literally chock-full of junkies. High school is huge. There are 15 to16 year old kids out there saying 'Hey, lets get some heroin tonight.' "

It's not just one school. John and George said they know of 40 to 50 area teenagers kids doing heroin. "It's at Boise High, Borah, Capital--all over. There's plenty of it too," John said. "You know the right person, you can get as much heroin or cocaine as you want."

"We know two kids who have overdosed in the past week," said John. "This guy cooked up a real thick shot and before he knew it, he woke up in an ambulance and they were pumping him."

While they both John and George consider themselves recovering addicts, the negative effects of their drug addiction are not over. Continued struggle with avoiding a relapse is not the only demon they face. Both John and George still say they owe their old dealers large amounts of money.

"I got, like, $4,000 under my belt," John said. "Some of these drug dealers I know are big mean motherfuckers. They are scary--pay someone to chop off your fingers scary."

"The only way to support our habit was to sell," John said. "We had tons of customers, tons of kids." They estimate they were selling 30 balloons a day and doing 15 on their own. They said they stopped doing everything. All day they sold heroin and did heroin. They stopped drinking, smoking pot, biking, drumming ... everything. They even lost their closest friends.

Ultimately, it took an intervention by those same friends they had lost to get them to realize they had to go in to rehab. John's parents had no idea the depth of their son's drug usage. They assumed he was perhaps smoking a little pot, maybe a little more, but nothing to worry about. They thought he had quit smoking pot on his own because they didn't smell it on him anymore. Kids experiment sometimes, right? They had no idea he was a junkie.

To come: Addiction, rehabilitation and Boise's lack of detox centers. If you have information regarding heroin, are an addict yourself, or wish to comment on this article please contact editor@boiseweekly or call 344-2055.

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