[ Metro Santa Cruz | MetroActive Central | Archives ]

Chiva the Destroyer

Here is a list of rehabilitation and counseling centers in the Santa Cruz area.

    Robert Scheer

    Shake the Disease: IV drug users can get clean needles, condoms, bleach and other life-saving supplies free from SC Needle Exchange.

    Help Wanted

    Although there is hardly anywhere for juveniles to turn for detox in this county, users are certainly seeking help more often than in the past. Last year, 79 Santa Cruzans under 25 sought help for heroin problems from the Santa Cruz County Drug and Alcohol Program, nearly twice as many as during the previous year. The proportion of the program's young clients reporting heroin as their primary drug also increased--from 8 percent in 1993-94 to 12 percent last year.

    Similarly, people under 25 now represent 12 percent of admissions to the county's Methadone Detox and Maintenance Program, up from about 8 percent in 1993-94, and the total admissions have jumped 31 percent since last year.

    "I'm hearing heroin is being viewed as more acceptable than in the past by kids," says Bill Manov, County Drug and Alcohol Program director. "People are seeing the types of behavior associated with crank and cocaine--the paranoia, the propensity for violence--as less desirable. The higher numbers of admissions under 25--I would have confidence that indicates higher use since the service we've been providing hasn't changed."

    National statistics from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration show a sharp rise in the number of people admitted to emergency rooms after using heroin. The agency reports 27,300 ER admissions in 1994, up from 1,250 in 1988.

    That relatively few young people have ended up on the autopsy slab from heroin overdose is some small measure of hope for local prevention workers. According to Detective Alan Burt of the County Coroner's Office, four of 24 heroin overdoses in the county last year were people under 30 (one was an 18-year-old woman). In 1994, there were 17 heroin-related fatalities--all people over 30. "We're not seeing the young ones dying from it yet," says the detective.

    Burt adds that the rise in heroin deaths from 1994 to 1995 does not necessarily indicate a rise in use. A number of last year's deaths were parolees who went straight back to their old habits after being released from prison and made the fatal mistake of injecting the same amount of the drug as they were using pre-incarceration, Burt says.

    Risky Business

    Known by hundreds of nicknames--chiva, skag, horse, smack and junk, to name a few--heroin is available all over Santa Cruz County, but it's almost never "China white"--the white powder seen on television. It mostly comes as black tar--with a chunk the size of a small pea going for $20 in the Beach Flats, the Westside or lower Pacific. Smoked by heating with a lighter on a piece of tin foil, it's enough to get five or more novice users pretty high.

    Many users start out by smoking or snorting the drug--if it's pure enough--and later turn to mainlining. Some users, says Gillette, will even dissolve the tar in a small amount of water and snort or drink the liquid. "I think there's a mindset among the kids that somehow it's less addictive if you're not using needles, which is certainly inaccurate," she says.

    Providers attribute the perceived rise in heroin's popularity in part to lower prices and higher purity, which makes heroin easier to snort rather than inject. But many also point to the dubious glamorization of the drug in hit movies like Pulp Fiction and its highly publicized use by popular actors and rock musicians--members of Velvet Underground, Hole, Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, Guns N' Roses--the list goes on.

    "When River Phoenix died of an overdose--while it's a sobering experience and a loss students could relate to, there's an element of glamour that becomes associated with the use, because here's this charismatic, bright, politically correct actor using it," says Michael Dorenzo, director of the Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Prevention Program at UC-Santa Cruz.

    Whether or not the rise in demand for services translates into a true rise in heroin use among the young, heroin has certainly created problems locally. While some people can maintain family and career while nursing an addiction, many can't, and few teens have the self-discipline to use in moderation.

    Serna says the youth heroin problem in Beach Flats got out of hand in the summer of 1994, with groups of kids acting up--stealing and causing trouble in the streets. In response, community members rallied the help of local government leaders and drug abuse prevention workers to create a "guerrilla" detox program. The idea, Serna says, was to pluck young users out of the drug culture and convince them that somebody cared about them.

    It worked for most of the kids targeted, Serna says, but the neighborhood heroin problem has persisted. "Beach Flats and lower Ocean [Street] is 'The Store,' and the employees commute here in shifts," says Serna, noting that many of the dealers come from out of town to do business here. "They may entice the kids here with money and samples of their products. When the kids get addicted, they become the mules, the runners. A lot of kids are running around wanting help, but they don't know where to get it."

    Heroin use also appears to be common among students at UC-Santa Cruz. "Since I came here as a student in 1989, I've seen a lot more up at the university, definitely," says Jacqueline Martinez, who works for Community Partnership, a federally funded local drug-abuse prevention program.

    As a UCSC student, Martinez did HIV education in the dormitories and has run across what she describes as "shooting galleries." "It's always in the closet. People don't talk about it often, so the administration doesn't think it exists."

    "We see students all the time," the Needle Exchange's Edney concurs.

    Michael Dorenzo of UCSC's prevention program says five or six students have sought help for a heroin problem so far this year--more than usual, but still relatively few. "We don't see the functional users," she adds. "But it's definitely time-limited for heroin users. Heroin use would definitely be difficult to balance with being a functioning student here."

    Robert Scheer

    Give 'Em the Works: First-time Needle Exchange volunteer Erica Scalzo listens and learns at a street distribution point.

    In the Tar Pits

    It certainly was time-limited for Jeff, 26, who left a doctoral program at UCSC last year to go into rehab. He was already a heavy heroin and cocaine user when he arrived at the university, and the story of his addiction has the ring of an anti-drug pamphlet.

    Jeff--whose last name was withheld by request--describes himself as someone who had low self-esteem and was "tormented." He had trouble fitting in with people, he says, and for him the allure of chiva was the people and the subculture surrounding it. "By the time I was 18, I knew I was willing to try slamming heroin," he says.

    After getting his masters degree from Tulane, Jeff moved to Denver, where he lived with his girlfriend and delivered sandwiches for a living. He was introduced to mainlining by some of his neighbors, all young people like him--18 to 24. "For a while you feel like you got it going on," he says. "I used to say, 'Damn, this is the life!' "

    But the honeymoon was short-lived. Within 18 months, Jeff says, he had progressed from a $10-a-day habit to spending $150 a day on heroin and cocaine. By the time he left UCSC to enter a local detox program--where he currently lives--Jeff says he was spending whatever he could get on heroin, stealing to support his habit and manipulating anybody who tried to help him.

    "When you first use heroin, you feel kind of nauseous and euphoric. But once you're strung out, just to regain your humanity, you have to use it two or three times a day," Jeff says. "You don't even feel high anymore, you just go from being a mess to having it completely together. Your whole well-being is wrapped up in the drug. It's horrible, but you'd do anything to get your humanity back. It reduced me to zero--all my scholastic work, my relationships, were reduced to nothing. By the time I got in here [rehab], my only friends were old dope fiends, 50 and older, people I was going to be like."

    Jeff's story is not necessarily typical. Not everyone crashes and burns. Many people flirt with the drug. They use for a while to cope with problems or for recreation, and then try to kick it when they have the will. One local musician, 23, reveals that he sought out heroin because he had bad back pain and no health insurance. He says he has bought and smoked heroin between five and 10 times over the past year.

    "Your vision gets fuzzy, and you might get sick to your stomach and throw up," he says. "The flashes are these moments of intensity when you're, like, engulfed in a storm and you'll have this euphoria all over your body in waves. You might drift in and out of consciousness or reality. It's pleasurable except for the being sick to your stomach and feeling weak afterwards. My lungs would feel really bad and I had nightmares. ... You might feel sick and disgusting for a while but then the idea [to get more] comes back into your head in a few days and you have to stop and think, is the high worth it? Is the chance of getting caught worth it? And I think I've concluded it isn't."

    There are other risks a lot worse than getting caught. There's the financial quagmire. There's the risk of overdose, since the quality of street heroin varies enormously. Shooters can, and often do, get bad abscesses on their arms if they aren't careful about hygiene. The threat of HIV infection from shared needles is high. (Edney says a lot of her friends have died of AIDS.) When people are "dope sick"--strung out and desperate for a fix--some will do whatever it takes to score, in extreme cases turning to burglary and prostitution.

    Then there are quality issues. "Usually, when there's a bad batch going around, we're the first to know," Edney says. "About six months ago, a batch of heroin was cut with ground glass and was ripping people up. We put up fliers warning people and that dealer got run out of town."

    Robert Scheer

    Referral Madness: County Drug and Alcohol Program Chief Bill Manov has seen a significant rise in young people seeking treatment.

    Mainline Maintenance

    While prevention programs like those at the county or UCSC see people who can no longer cope with their addictions, Edney describes many of those who use the Needle Exchange as "functional" users. For one reason or another, they are not ready to quit. Many have tried rehab and failed. "We see plenty of people with full-time jobs who manage their habits," she says.

    Sanchez of Si Se Puede is skeptical about the concept of functional use. "That could last a few months and then they need to start doing something to support their habit," he says. "All of their check goes to that. They need to have a good job. I used to work and then go and steal just for my habit."

    Edney, who also has personal experience with heroin use, describes the local Needle Exchange as a bit "radical" because it does not try to persuade clients to seek help unless the person wants it. Instead, she says, Needle Exchange creates a sense of community among the drug users and volunteers. That much is evident on a recent Thursday night in the parking lot of Curiosa on lower Pacific Avenue, where volunteers hand out clean syringes, condoms, bleach for cleaning needles, alcohol swabs, cotton and some donated food to those drug users willing to brave the rain. Even with 1,500 regulars, everyone is on a first-name basis.

    "We want people to know they're not alone, and that's really powerful, especially for a group that has been demonized," Edney says. "If you can't talk about your drug problem, your chances of overdosing, getting abscesses and getting HIV are a lot higher."

    Many Needle Exchange volunteers are current or former users themselves, and the organization even has its own zine called Junkphood, in which users share their experiences. It also includes tips on how to shoot up as safely as possible. Their writingsmakes it clear that many users prefer their drug-induced reality to the straight world.

    "I'm not sorry I started, because I'm an experimental person, but I don't want to lose my life because of it," related a UCSC student named Kira. "There's all this literature about it, saying how bad it is, but that just glamorized it for me. All I heard was, 'Ooh, that sounds like fun.' There's a certain dark mystique about it."

    Many people would question the wisdom of fostering a community of drug users, especially among young people. Francisco Serna believes getting the kids away from the drugs is crucial. "When we find out these young kids are getting introduced to this, we got to move real fast because once they get a taste for it, they'll be back," he says.

    But for some kids, there isn't anybody who cares enough to do that. Edney remembers a boy of 15 or 16 who came to the Needle Exchange about 18 months ago. She talked with him for about three hours and then gave him a hug. "He told me it was the first time anyone had touched him for a year," she recalls.

    Edney says another 16-year-old client used heroin as a coping mechanism because her stepfather was raping her. The Needle Exchange was the only place the girl felt she could talk about it. "We don't like seeing a bunch of kids coming here, but a kid is not going to quit shooting drugs just because you tell them to," Edney says. "If we say, 'You're a child and shooting drugs is wrong,' they'll never come back. We want people to come to a place where they won't be judged--but if they want to get off, we'll do 100 percent to facilitate."

    Serna points out, however, that it's not merely the users of IV drugs who are at risk. Neighborhoods like Beach Flats and lower Ocean Street suffer from the illegal trade, whether or not the users are leading productive lives. And with a lack of jobs for young people in Santa Cruz, juveniles are easily lured into employment in the illegal drug trade. "We don't take the collateral damage into account," he says. "Chemical dependency causes damage to the families and friends, the school system, the social service system, the workplace. It creates violence, garbage, prostitution, property is defaced--it's a rippling effect."

    City Outreach worker Dennis Johnston holds similar views. "The use and abuse isn't as much the problem as that the kids have to do whatever they can to get what they need," he says. "There's a whole trail of things that follow it. I look at the whole thing as a massive epidemic."

    Robert Scheer

    On Kids and Needles: "Kids ask us for help quitting all the time. There's not much to do for them other than home detox or sending them to San Jose," says Needle Exchange's Heather Edney.

    Juvenile Hell

    The trouble is that when someone under 18 gets hooked, there's nowhere to turn for detox. Every service provider in the county knows it, but there's nothing to be done because local government is strapped.

    The Camp Treatment Center in Scotts Valley does have a residential detox facility for juveniles, but--apart from the rare pro bono case--the cost is high: about $300 a day. Many teen users are neither covered by health insurance nor able to access that kind of cash.

    Parents of Mexican kids who are addicted often send them back to Mexico to kick their habits, because heroin is harder to come by there, Sanchez says. But when they return to the United States, the kids usually start using again because there's no treatment available.

    Minors can be admitted to the county methadone program, but Manov says that rarely happens. What's more, methadone programs are often criticized as simply swapping one addiction for another. There are prevention programs for minors, such as Community Partnership, which Martinez says tries to create a community in which kids can talk openly about drug problems and seek help. However, she says, aside from providing adult friendship, activities and alternatives to drug use, there are few actual resources for kids that are addicted and want out.

    "I pretty regularly see kids who are using and I have no place for them to detox," Johnston concurs. "The closest detox or drug program I know of for under 18 is Thunder Road in Oakland. And it costs about six grand a month to keep them there."

    Given the lack of resources for young users, UCSC's Dorenzo stresses a supportive, non-judgmental atmosphere in drug abuse prevention. "The war on drugs has been a miserable failure," she says. "It's not about fighting things, it's about coming together and building communities and supporting students. We have to help some of the students reprioritize. We have to help them define the social norm, and I don't think heroin is accepted as the social norm here."

    [ Metro Santa Cruz | MetroActive Central | Archives ]

From the February 22-28, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

This page was designed and created by the Boulevards team.
Copyright © 1996 Metro Publishing and Virtual Valley, Inc.