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A Congressional subcommittee meets at the State House Monday for a field briefing on the subject of heroin and OxyContin addiction.
The hearing comes after a state commission called heroin and OxyContin addiction “an epidemic” last November, saying it poses a greater threat to public health than the flu pandemic. A month later, East Boston became the face of that story. John Forbes, a neighborhood coordinator in East Boston employed by the city, was arrested and charged with selling OxyContin.
That East Boston should be linked so closely to the OxyContin-to-heroin connection seems a mis-marriage — not least of which is that East Boston's demographics are wrong for what is largely a suburban, middle-class phenomenon. WBUR's David Boeri crossed the harbor to Eastie to get the stories of three young users who made the trip from OxyContin to heroin.
BOSTON-- Across the harbor in balmy East Boston, a warm wind blew through blossoming cherry trees, kids played in the park, lovers kissed and a couple of junkies talked of spring pleasures.
“It's a good day to get high,” said Michelle, who, at 26, has enough bruised veins from track marks to suggest she is a woman for all seasons. She says that sardonically, because after all, “when you’re a junkie, it’s always a good day to get high."
“In the two weeks I worked there I ended up stealing about $1,200 for drugs,” Katelyn said, still embarrassed by what happened.
Snowstorms, hurricanes, first-of-the-months when the checks or the food stamps that you can sell come in-- yeah, it was always a great day to get high. Bitterness belies her age, but then again she looks a lot older than 26. On the other hand, baby-faced Katelyn — who, at 20, looks as wholesome as a high school cheerleader — is dreaming of needles, as if addiction hasn’t got old yet.
“I just remember lying in my bed, waking up and being so excited to grab the needle and set it up and stick it in my arm and find the vein," she said.
Katelyn and Michelle* who have asked their last names to be withheld are residing at a treatment program in the Meridian House in East Boston. What they also have in common — which is more important here — is their ride on the heroin highway. The now common pathway of addiction takes teenagers and twenty-somethings — generally suburbanites — from inhaling the pharmaceutical OxyContin to injecting heroin, which most of them could never imagine doing when they sniffed oxy.
Katelyn's ride began like so many others’ with an 80 milligram pill of OxyContin, crushed up and inhaled. Her boyfriend, who’d suggested it, showed her how to take it. The Oxy-80 brought the same rush of spring as the high 80's temperatures that made it feel like July in Eastie last week.
“I tried it. Loved it," Katelyn said. "I just loved the way it made me feel. I forgot all about my problems."
OxyContin pills — also called “O.C.s” or “oxyies” — aren’t cheap. An 80 milligram pill costs $80.
And soon Katelyn was running up a habit of Oxy-80s. The honor roll student, suddenly a college drop-out, went on a week-long binge. Then she got a job as a cashier at a home improvement store.
“In the two weeks I worked there I ended up stealing about $1,200 for drugs,” she said, still embarrassed by what happened.
It’s a typical Oxy story, in which honor roll boy and girl scouts hit the fast lane and pass on the curve. Katelyn — the drum major of her high school marching band, who'd done not one day in school detention — was paraded out of the store in handcuffs by police at its busiest time and shuffled into court in ankle shackles.
Michelle had taken to OxyContin with the same excitement as Katelyn, but her ride on the heroin highway was far longer and more damaging.
Stealing, or Dealing
“It started out a one- to two-a-day habit,” Michelle said. But soon enough it accelerated to a staggering 12 a day.
“How were you paying for them?” I asked. “You're 18-years-old.”
“You do things you said you would never do,” she answered. Like stealing, she says, and “being with men,” which she’d prefer to be less explicit about. “Things you said you would never do” suffices.
If you’re not rich, and you have a habit, you can steal or you can deal to feed it. The third person I met with is an athletic 21-year-old. He decided he was going to deal to feed his addiction.
When I asked him to give me an idea of how much he might be buying at any particular time, he said anywhere between hundreds and thousands.
He carried a gun and sold OC's in baggies and even white, foil-sealed pharmaceutical bottles. It was the idea they were medicines, prescribed by doctors, that made suburban and teenage customers comfortable buying them, he says.
“They would do an Oxy any time, but if you put a line of heroin in front of them, they say, 'No I don't do that (expletive),' he said. "It's a pill from a doctor so it's okay to them, but they wouldn't do heroin.”
From OxyContin to Heroin
Wouldn’t do it, that is, until their addiction to Oxyies became too expensive — which it soon does when you’re running up a $500-a-day drug tab.
And said the young trafficker: “And, you know, who the hell can afford that? So that's why people turn to the cheaper alternative: heroin.”
And here’s where the gateway typically opens from OxyContin to heroin. It’s what happened for Katelyn.
Listen: Dr. Nathaniel Katz On OxyContin
“I could buy a bag of heroin for $50 and it would last me two days. So, it was just economically the smarter thing to do,” Katelyn said, with a laugh at how mad it all was.
When you can get heroin for about the about the price of a pack of cigarettes, after the high price of Oxy-80s, it’s like hitting a clearance sale. The initial stigma of doing heroin is so much road dust in the rear view mirror.
At first, Katelyn was just sniffing heroin, like she’d sniffed the crushed up OxyContins.
In the typical pattern, users graduate from inhaling heroin to injecting it into their veins, wanting an even faster rush.
The athletic trafficker remembers the moment vividly.
“I said I'm trying it," he said. "My friends were like, ‘Wow, man, I don't know. We said we'd never do that.' And I'm like, ‘I'll go first, (expletive) it.' And I loved it. It felt awesome."
"But, you know," adds the athlete, "it was the disease just sneaking up.”
Facing the Police, and the Drugs
So too were the cops. This 21-year-old trafficker is headed to trial on federal charges and he’ll go to prison for five to 20 years, if convicted, which is why he doesn't want me to reveal his last name either.
On the plus side, he’s been free of heroin and Oxy for six months at Meridian House.
Looking back at what she went through, Michelle said, “There's nothing to live for. You're living to die.”
“I could buy a bag of heroin for $50 and it would last me two days. So, it was just economically the smarter thing to do,” she said, with a laugh at how mad it all was.
Her nightmare includes being raped, beaten, giving birth to a premature baby who lived just three hours, and weeks later, overdosing. After EMT's failed to revive her and quit trying any longer, she was pronounced dead — it was 11:02 p.m. — only to come back on her own four minutes later.
As for Katelyn the drum major, her nightmare are the dreams she still has about needles, four months after stopping.
“I'm scared that I'm going to back out there and get high," she said.
“You still want the needle?” I asked.
“Yeah, absolutely,” she replied.
And the price of getting onto the heroin highway here in East Boston is getting cheaper.
A new gateway drug called Percocet-30 is selling on the streets for about $20 a pill — much more affordable than OxyContin, meaning a lower threshold to get onto the path to heroin addiction.
*Both women have asked that their last names not be disclosed because they’re worried their attempts to rebuild their lives will be hindered by publicity. We have confirmed their identities, but agreed to withhold their last names.
This program aired on April 12, 2010.
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