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Photograph by Stephen Laufer

The Needle and the Damage Done: Signs of heroin use are often found at encampments like this one around the county.

The Dope Show

Heroin is big again in Santa Cruz County--and this time it's come for your kids

By Jessica Lloyd Rogers

EVERY PLACE HAS a favorite name for it: smack, skag, junk, hammer, slow, gear, harry, horse, brown sugar, black tar, big H, Harry.

In Santa Cruz County, the slang term of choice for heroin is "chiva," a term clearly not chosen for its marketing value, since it translates roughly to "goat turds" and refers to the passing resemblance between the two. And if signs of a growing heroin problem in this area are any indication--in recent weeks, the local media has been rife with reports of heroin-related gangs, overdoses and prostitution rings--it's a term we'll be hearing more and more.

"The average person has no idea of the scope of the heroin problem in this county," says Agent Tony Parker, a Santa Cruz police officer assigned to the California Narcotics Enforcement Team (CNET). "They don't know how bad it is or how many people it affects. Heroin is a powerful, powerful addiction. It doesn't care who you are. It will take everything you have and everything you hope to have."

Lately, it's making out like a bandit. According to the California Drug Assessment Update issued in May of this year, heroin abuse remains at high levels throughout California. It accounts for the highest numbers of drug-related treatment admissions in the state--a cool 61,853 cases in 2001, with heroin the leading cause of drug-related deaths in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco.

Closer to home, the situation is just as unnerving. Bill Manov, director of the County Drug and Alcohol Program, says that during the 2000/2001 fiscal year, 33 percent of the 2,418 clients admitted to Santa Cruz County treatment programs were heroin users, with marijuana users in second place at 11 percent.

"Heroin has been a serious problem in Santa Cruz for at least the last 10 years," says Manov.

Detective Steve Plaskett, who has 22 years of service with the Santa Cruz sheriff's office, says the connection goes back even farther.

"Heroin has always been a problem in Santa Cruz," he says.


Where to Get Help: A list of local resources for heroin-related issues.

Junk and Disorder: Local crime statistics around heroin may be deceptive.


Year of the Dragon

One of the most disturbing new trends in this latest wave of heroin chic is that it's attracting increasingly young users, especially young girls.

Take Erica, who grew up in Santa Cruz County. Only 11 when she started smoking weed and drinking booze, she was doing cocaine and heroin by the time she was 12.

"I really liked heroin," she says. "It made me relaxed. There was no pain. I couldn't cry. I couldn't feel sad. It made me feel normal."

Most people still associate heroin strictly with needles, but Erica started the way most young users do--someone she knew offered her some to smoke. They placed a pea-sized piece on a piece of aluminum foil, heated it underneath until it smoked, then showed her how to inhale it--addicts call it "chasing the dragon."

"Needles might be scary," says Lily Garcia, program manager for Youth Services in Watsonville, "but most of the kids start by smoking it. It's the social drug of choice. If the kids want to be part of the group, they accept the offer."

However scary needles may be, many users soon take them up when smoking heroin is no longer enough. Erica quickly discovered she got a longer lasting high by injecting it into her veins. When she had no more veins left, she began "skin popping"--shooting it into her muscles.

"You don't care about anything but getting the next fix," she says.

At the height of Erica's addiction, she was shooting up 12 times a day, roughly every hour and a half. And with each buy of 1.5-2 grams (about the size of a pencil eraser) costing between $30 and $40, Erica stole and prostituted herself in an endless cycle to feed her habit.

From the time she woke up under the Pajaro Bridge, where she slept, Erica would begin to hustle. And the minute she had enough money, she would make a buy, shoot up, then begin the cycle again.

"There was no time to even enjoy the high," she says. "I had to start working on my next fix."

Recently turned 16, Erica is now in a Santa Cruz County residential program. "I've been clean for six months," she says.

She's one of the lucky ones.

H Is for Children

Teenagers in this county already top national averages when it comes to drugs. A 2001 survey of local high schools showed that 5 percent of 11th graders had used heroin at least once--double the national average. And a 1998 study of the Santa Cruz Juvenile Hall over a one-month period revealed that 16.6 percent of detainees used heroin daily.

"Heroin addiction is on the rise, and it's taking a lot of our young people with it," says Garcia, who has been working with young people and addiction for the past seven years. Though she has seen a dramatic increase overall in heroin use among young people, she says young women are the hardest hit.

Don Eggleston, head teacher at the New School, a continuation school in Watsonville, agrees.

"Ten years ago, we had one student hooked on heroin," he says. "Today, one-tenth of our students are dealing with heroin addiction. More than half of them are female."

Those in the know agree that girls are more likely to be recruited than guys because once they are addicted, "they are not only working for the drug itself, they often end up prostituting to support their 'boyfriend,' the dealer who got them hooked in the first place," says Garcia.

Over the last few years, especially here in Santa Cruz, the ages of the addicted have continued to drop. Now, there are cases of addicted 9-year-olds and 12-year-old girls prostituting to feed their habit.

Rolando Ortega, project coordinator for Casa Bienestar, a drop-in center for at-risk teens, says 60 to 80 percent of the young people that come through the door are addicted. Many of them have already been using for several years.

"In the old days, only the hardcore users injected, so young people generally wouldn't go there," he says. "But when friends and dealers showed a new recruit how to smoke it, the resistance disappeared."

Photograph by Stephen Laufer

Drug Pipeline: Addicts often use heroin in local spots off the beaten path.

Adventures in The Drug Trade

According to a former addict who wants to be identified only as Former Dope Fiend (FDF), the shift in drug-use demographics is not a coincidence, but an orchestrated push by drug dealers for new customers .

"The decision was made about 10 years ago, when the organizations decided to expand the drug trade and take over the West Coast," says FDF. "What we are seeing is the fallout from that decision. It's simple marketing. You have a product, you need customers, preferably long-term customers. So, you go after the kids."

FDF should know. He began using at the age of 14 and continued until he was 37. During that time, "I used, dealt, carried and anything else that needed doing," says FDF, who has family ties to both La Nuestra Familia and Eme (the Mexican Mafia), or the north and the south.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) reports that Mexican drug cartels already specializing in cocaine and marijuana trafficking have expanded into heroin. According to DEA agent Richard Meyer, this too is a simple matter of economics, since the profit margin is larger in heroin than in cocaine.

Most of the Mexican black tar heroin--the most prevalent type found in Santa Cruz--makes its way north from Southern California, primarily Los Angeles. And according to Agent Parker of CNET, "Ninety-eight percent of the dealers we arrest are Mexican nationals."

Though this may all be starting to sound like a job for the federal government's long-cherished "War on Drugs," in reality we may be paying now for the short-sightedness of that campaign. Over the past 15 years, roughly 70 percent of the allocated money has gone to law enforcement for interdiction and crop eradication, while only 30 percent has gone to prevention services. Yet study after study has shown that prevention is a far more effective solution to the spiraling heroin epidemic.

Manov says policy makers need to be pushed into finding better solutions, rather than paying lip service.

"We need to recognize as a community that kids with addictions is not about morals, it is a treatable condition," he says. "The community needs to organize and give policy makers the impetus to address the problem."

Dragon Slayer

Meanwhile, recovering addict Christina B. glows with pride. The Watsonville resident's skin is clear, her eyes and hair shine, and she's planning to get her tattoos removed, while attempting to get a job.

"I've been clean for five months," she says.

Christina, 21, has been addicted to heroin and cocaine since she was 13, smoking it for a year before shooting it.

"I was really addicted," she says, "It got bad. I always had a warrant, I spent a lot of time in juvenile hall. There were a lot of fights around me, I had no place to stay and people all around me were dying or disappearing."

A combination of exhaustion, concern for her son (born when she was 16) and drug court intervention finally stopped her cycle of destruction, she says.

"Nobody thought I would make it in the program," says Christina. "I ran from every other opportunity. It isn't that hard to stay clean, you just have to focus."

Recovery, says Christina, also involves staying with the program, finding all new friends and figuring out how to fill up time previously spent scoring money for the next fix.

"It is hard," she admits, "but lots of things are hard, and I finally have a future."

Her optimism is infectious, but she's not out of the woods yet. Though some have managed to kick a heroin habit, one adult who has worked with young people for years says, "I don't know one who hasn't relapsed and returned to the toilet."

It may sound callous, but it's true that anyone trying to kick the heroin habit has to learn an entirely new way to live. Beyond finding a new social circle, new things to do with their leisure time and new ways to deal with depression and pain, they will probably have a criminal record that limits employment options.

Nightmare On Our Streets

As if that weren't enough, young recovering addicts will likely find themselves back in the neighborhood and streets that fostered and fed their addiction. And they may have to deal with gang pressure, if they try to cut affiliations.

"Many adults don't have a clue about the dangers these kids face every day, just trying to survive," Eggleston says. "When they walk out the door, they face drug dealers and gangsters. That's who controls their neighborhoods. I can walk through Watsonville and Pajaro and never be bothered. If I were young and brown, I would be "hit up"--asked where I'm from and what gang I claim. The streets are a completely different experience for young people."

The structure of the heroin trade is changing, too. Parker says many of the dealers arrested by CNET are not gang members, but independents, "usually male, 20s to 50s, and often a family man." He cites the recent arrest of a man who drove around making sales with his toddler beside him in the minivan.

"Two years ago, there were three dealers and the gangs controlled the dealers," says Savio, a Watsonville resident who has been in the thick of the area's heroin troubles. "Now, the market is bigger, there are more dealers and they control the gangs."

Savio says Mexican organizations have sent "soldiers" to this area to build the drug market. To complicate matters further, he says, there is a fight for territory between the Mexican organizations, the Colombians and the Bolivians. Here in Santa Cruz, he says, the big showdown will happen between the Colombian and the Mexican organizations. And his outlook is grim, as he says that what we have seen so far in Santa Cruz County is "only a test."

"Wait about five years," he says. "Until then, our children will continue to be recruited. We are all going to pay."

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From the August 21-28, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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