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Painkiller use breeds new face of heroin addiction

Deaths from heroin abuse rose from six in 1999 to thirty in 2011, and this year it is on track to be even worse. NBC's Kate Snow reports.

Yardena Schwartz
NBC News

Chicago Police Capt. John Roberts never thought that moving to the suburbs would mean that his 14-year-old son Billy would immediately be introduced to drugs. And never did he ever imagine that Billy, a high school athlete, would even think of touching heroin.

After 33 years in the Chicago Police Department, Roberts was finally ready to retire. He couldn’t wait to move his family out to the suburbs, where he thought his kids would live in a safer environment, attend better schools and be sheltered from some of the ugly realities of city life.

But after growing addicted to prescription painkillers, Billy and his friends could no longer afford their habit. They soon turned to heroin, which they could buy for a tenth of the price of their favorite pill, Oxycontin. Billy was 19 when he died of a heroin overdose, but he wasn’t the only one of his friends to suffer that fate.

John Roberts, a retired Chicago police captain, started the Heroin Epidemic Relief Organization after losing his teenage son to a heroin overdose.

At first, Roberts couldn’t believe what was happening to his family , and that heroin could affect a good kid like Billy. But then he realized he wasn’t alone.  

Across the country, heroin use is growing at an alarming rate and is affecting a surprising segment of the population.

“Kids in the city know not to touch it, but the message never got out to the suburbs,” said Roberts, who founded the Heroin Epidemic Relief Organization to help other families cope with the shock of teen heroin use. Like most parents in upper-middle class neighborhoods, Roberts said, “We didn’t think it would ever be a problem out here.”

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, initiations to heroin have increased 80 percent among 12- to 17-year-olds since 2002. In 2009, the most recent year for which national data is available, 510 young adults between the ages of 15 and 24 died of a heroin overdose. That figure was just 198 in 1999, meaning that the rate of young adult deaths caused by heroin more than doubled in one decade. Close to 90 percent of teen heroin addicts are white, data show.

Recovered teen heroin addict Alyssa Dedrick and her mother, Mary, discuss their family's struggle with addiction, and how in the suburbs, heroin abuse is "right under our noses."

Crackdown on painkiller abuse fuels new wave of heroin addiction

“Part of the problem is they don’t realize how bad it is,” said Roberts. “After Billy used it a few times, he thought he was OK, because he didn’t seem like a junkie.”

The biggest problem seems to be the connection between prescription painkillers and heroin. The opiate high that teens seek from drugs such as Oxycodone (the actual drug contained in OxyContin brand pills) may also be obtained from heroin, which is much cheaper, easier to buy, and offers users a more intense high.

“It’s hard to talk about the heroin problem without talking about the prescription drug problem,” notes Rafael Lemaitre, of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Given new research on skyrocketing prescription drug abuse, the link between opioid pills and heroin is even more alarming. 

The number of teenagers seeking treatment for heroin abuse has skyrocketed, and the number of deaths from heroin among high school and college-age kids more than doubled from 1999 to 2009. NBC's Kate Snow reports.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, deaths from prescription drugs tripled nationwide between 2000 and 2008. In a recent national survey on teen drug abuse conducted by the University of Michigan, one in eight high school seniors admitted to using prescription painkillers they weren’t prescribed. Overall, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, drug overdose (from both prescription and non-prescription drugs) is now the leading cause of accidental deaths in the United States. Officials fear that the over-prescription of powerful painkillers and the lack of awareness about the danger associated with them could continue to fuel the problem.

“Kids are going to believe that this is not a problem, and parents are going to continue to leave their prescription opioids unattended if they don’t know about the risks,” said Westley Clark, director of the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment at the Department of Health and Human Services.

While marijuana has historically been the usual suspect, prescription pain killers are now becoming the latest and most dangerous gateway drugs.

In dozens of interviews with former young heroin addicts, NBC News found that every single heroin user had arrived at shooting up the same way: starting with expensive prescription drugs, which they purchased from friends for $20-$60. When they became too addicted to afford pills, they listened to friends who told them they could get a better, cheaper high if they used heroin instead. For $3-$10 a bag, they said, they started off by snorting the drug, never thinking that they would end up injecting it. Most of them started shooting up within weeks.

Alyssa Dedrick was an honor roll student from a nice Boston suburb, and her high school’s cheerleading captain, until she discovered Oxycontin. When she and her friends could no longer afford the pills, they tried smoking heroin. Dedrick, now 23 and fully recovered, never imagined she would ever try the drug, let alone plan on injecting it. She said she just wanted to see what it was like, but within a week she was putting a needle in her arm.

Chris O’Connor grew up in a loving Catholic family in a wealthy Boston suburb. His father works in commercial real estate, his mother is a homemaker. For a while, O’Connor was able to hide the fact that he was driving to the city on a regular basis to score heroin from dealers on the street. He earned excellent grades in high school, and even went on to study at Georgetown University, where he did pretty well at first.

“I just thought it wouldn’t affect me,” said O’Connor, who is now 27 and still recovering after more than 20 stints in treatment. “People who come from a privileged background are generally shielded from negative outcomes in life,” he said.

With the cost of prescription drugs on the rise and heroin becoming purer and cheaper, the drug that spawns fear in other generations has become more appealing to a younger set.  

For teens living near major cities, heroin can also be easier to buy than prescription drugs.  Rather than having to find someone who has a prescription, they can just do what Chris O’Connor did and take a quick drive into the city, where they know they can score at any hour of the day.

According to the National Drug Intelligence Center, Mexican heroin production has increased significantly in recent years, from an estimated 7 metric tons in 2002, to 50 metric tons in 2011. That sevenfold increase has made heroin more available in metropolitan areas across the country, including Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Illinois, Pennsylvania and South Carolina.

For families like the O’Connors, who once considered themselves immune to heroin, the crucial difference between life and death was early recognition, treatment and constant support.

It’s taken Chris more than a decade, but he can now triumphantly say he’s been clean for at least a year. Many of the friends he once used with have not been as fortunate.

“I think ultimately what saved my life was the love of my family, being there for me unconditionally,” he said. “I had so many psychologists and therapists. The best ones weren’t the smartest ones, they were the ones who cared the most.”


Resources for addiction recovery:

Heroin Epidemic Relief Organization (HERO)

National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) 

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)

Faces and Voices of Recovery


Partnership for a Drug Free America

Parents for a Change

Learn to Cope

Family Healing Strategies

Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy

Addiction Research Institute

Moms Tell

I Can Help

Robert Crown Center