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Heroin Moves Into Connecticut Suburbia

Drug abuse

By GRACE E. MERRITT | The Hartford Courant

December 21, 2008

Heroin, a drug usually associated with skeletal addicts in the inner city, is increasingly infiltrating Connecticut's suburbs.

The suburban heroin scene is more sanitized and less obvious. Users are typically young and white and living in comfortable homes. Most, at least at first, don't even inject the drug.

"The more refined, suburban way of doing things is snorting it," Glastonbury Police Chief Thomas Sweeney said.

In most cases, young suburbanites start out by trying, then quickly becoming hooked on, prescription painkillers, authorities said. As their addiction deepens and they need more of the expensive pills to get the same high, they take a disturbingly quick path to heroin, which is potent, widely available and cheap.

"In Hartford, it sells for as little as $4 a bag, and that is the problem we have in Connecticut in a nutshell," said Wayne Kowal, public education coordinator for the state police Statewide Narcotics Task Force.

For the first time ever, heroin has surpassed alcohol as the primary drug for those seeking rehabilitation treatment in the state, said Peter Rockholz, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

Also, in the past couple of years, the number of heroin deaths in Connecticut has doubled from one a week to two a week, Rockholz said. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration now considers heroin the main drug of concern in Connecticut and the Northeast.

Common, Cheap And Pure

The highly addictive, dangerous drug has only recently emerged, at least publicly, in towns such as Glastonbury, where it has taken two lives in the past few months. This fall, local police made eight heroin arrests and investigated two dozen home burglaries, some of which police believe were committed by addicts seeking loot to pawn for cash.

In Southington, heroin claimed at least four young lives in the past two years, while East Haddam has lost one young person to the drug. West Hartford police have been dealing with an uptick in heroin trafficking in the past year, seizing hundreds of packets in undercover stings at Westfarms mall and in the southeastern section of town.

Glastonbury and East Haddam recently held forums to warn parents that heroin has penetrated the sleepy suburbs.

"You can put your head in the sand and say it's not here. But heroin is around, it's common, it's cheap, it's pure and that's problematic," said Sweeney, the Glastonbury police chief.

In fact, municipal and state police say that heroin is now in every suburb in the state, from the poorest rural towns to the most exclusive ones.

"You look in any affluent, upper-middle-class town where kids have money and time and that's where it is," said Lauren Goodkin, 20, a recovering OxyContin and heroin addict from North Haven. "It's the kids who you would never tag the kids who are on the honor roll, the kids who play varsity sports, the kids who come from good families."

Goodkin's journey of addiction began when she rummaged through her family's medicine cabinet, trying to find something to ease a case of strep throat and bronchitis. She found an old bottle of her father's Percocet, a powerful pain reliever.

"I thought, 'Oh this will help.' And that was it. It was a split-second decision that changed the course of my entire life," Goodkin said

Goodkin, a student at the University of New Haven, finished the bottle within a week. Soon after, when a friend offered her an OxyContin pill another potent painkiller and, like heroin, an opiate she remembered the high from the Percocet and decided to try it.

She instantly developed a ferocious craving for "oxys" and began to buy pills for $30 to $60 each. As she built up a tolerance to the highly addictive drug, she had to buy more and more to achieve the same high. Before she knew it, she had a $400-a-day habit.

When she couldn't find OxyContin or couldn't scrounge up the money for it, she would turn to heroin. At $5 a bag, it was about as cheap as a pack of cigarettes.

"It all comes down to money. You are trying to save money and you are trying to get as high as possible," Goodkin said.

Moving Past The Shame

Many suburbanites are unaware of the problem or refuse to believe it.

"I think the general public reaction is, 'Oh, come on, you're sensationalizing again. It's certainly not my kid,'" Rockholz said. "Well, if it's not your kid, it's one of your kid's friends. It is happening in nice communities and in wealthy communities. It's widespread enough to be considered an epidemic, not just a few outbreaks here and there."

Heroin is most popular among young adults aged 18 to 25 in the state, although there is rapid growth in the 13- to 17-year range. In fact, prescription painkillers have now become the first drug that most young people aged 12 and older try, surpassing marijuana, which had always been considered the gateway drug, Rockholz said.

Between 2004 and 2006, emergency room visits related to prescription drugs increased by 44 percent throughout the country, Rockholz said.

Heroin still carries a social stigma. Parents feel guilty and ashamed that their children are addicts, and others worry that raising the issue will tar the image of their bedroom communities.

Mary Marcuccio, a Southington mother whose son is fighting a heroin addiction, said that she was told to hush up when she started speaking out about the problem in Southington.

"I was told point-blank, 'Don't you know what you are doing to property values here?'" she said.

During a well-attended drug forum in Glastonbury last month, a local pastor scolded the audience for not talking about the "elephant in the room."

"We're dealing with a drug that has a connotation associated with it. People don't necessarily even want to hear it spoken out loud. It's hushed up so real estate values aren't affected negatively," Paul Habersang, a pastor at St. James Episcopal Church, said later. "That's screwed up. If we're valuing real estate values over the lives of our youth, something's wrong."

Losing Erika

Heroin began oozing into Connecticut's suburbs about eight years ago in Fairfield County towns such as Newtown and Ridgefield, Rockholz said. The popularity of the drug spread along the I-91, I-95 and Route 8 pipelines, and today, suburban users can drive into any major Connecticut city to buy heroin.

Most of Connecticut's heroin comes from Mexico, smuggled in by vehicles or in human body cavities over the Southwest border. Connecticut's supply is as much as 80 percent to 90 percent pure before it is cut with fillers, which enables users to snort or smoke it and helps erase some of the stigma that comes from using needles.

"Some young adults believe it is not addictive because they are not injecting it," Kowal said. "The more they use it, the bigger their tolerance is to it, so they have to use more. Eventually they will start to inject it."

Like Goodkin, most heroin users start by taking prescription pain medications. Nearly 70 percent start by helping themselves to prescription painkillers they find in their family's medicine cabinets, Rockholz said.

Some hold "pharming" or "bowling" parties, in which they take whatever pills they find at home and toss them into a bowl and everyone takes a handful.

"This is very frightening. They just dump them all in and take handfuls and put them in their mouths," Rockholz said.

Many times, young people mistakenly believe that such drugs are safe because they're prescribed, albeit for other people, by doctors.

"Nobody tells you, 'Oh, by the way, painkillers, that's [just like taking] heroin.' That's what I would like to see. I'd like to see it written in really big, foot-long letters," said Goodkin, the recovering addict.

"You quite literally beg, borrow and steal from absolutely everyone," she said. "You start by stealing little things at first, like change from the pockets of winter coats, and going through the laundry. It progresses slowly to outright theft."

Goodkin's addiction changed her personality. She became more irritable and secretive, consumed with getting her next high.

"It just escalates so rapidly. I tried everything in the world to stop," said Goodkin, who has been drug-free for nine months after seeking treatment. "People are under the impression that we enjoy the lifestyle we lead. It's just not the case. We enjoy it for a little bit until we start getting sick."

It also destroys families who often don't realize what's happening and, when they do, feel powerless to stop it.

Ricky Hebert, 23, of Southington, who lost his sister, Erika, 21, to a heroin overdose in June, feels the pain of her loss most keenly in the morning when he drives to work and is lost in thought.

Hebert watched his warm, caring sister withdraw and let go of her appearance as the drug swallowed her up. The family got her to rehab and tried to support her.

"It was very hard on me. I try to be the core of family support, the one that people lean on. To see my parents break down in front of me was hard," Hebert said.

The family was acutely aware of the social stigma of having a heroin addict in the family.

"You feel like you are kind of an outcast. You feel like people are judging you. It tears your life apart," Hebert said.

He and others are trying to raise awareness of the epidemic of prescription drugs and heroin in the suburbs. They want to urge young people not to start in the first place, and they urge families to clean out their medicine cabinets and throw out any old prescriptions.

The state also is rolling out an awareness campaign to urge parents and grandparents to discard old prescription drugs and keep track of how many pills they have in each bottle.

At the same time, the state is ramping up a prescription monitoring program to track the prescribing practices of doctors. The idea is to keep a database of controlled substances to inform doctors about patients who might be taking other prescriptions and to crack down on addicts who "doctor shop" to get painkiller prescriptions.

"Someone's gotta save the next generation of kids from living this life," Goodkin said. "We've got to talk about it."

For more information on heroin and prescription drugs, see ctclearinghouse.org, ncadi.samhsa.gov or jointogether.org.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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