["Bound by the Needle, the Dealer and the Drug" is part one of a three part series about heroin addiction. Bookmark this page for updates.]
Editor's Note: The following story contains graphic language and images. It may not be suitable for all readers.
Chris Blum is laughing again, each breath a small wheeze followed by a noise that cuts through the surrounding sounds of the coffee shop patio. It’s full and rich, staccato and guttural; four beats long, the laugh of a man who sees the blessing in having anything to laugh about at all.
He’s a big guy, tall with a softness that comes with the newfound freedom to eat food without vomiting it back up again. Not long ago, Blum was a heroin addict. On this hot, sunny afternoon, Blum is sitting under an umbrella, dabbing perspiration away with a napkin and telling me about one of his jobs when he was an addict: a money collector for his dealer.
“I was a nice guy the first time,” he says, smiling. “The second time you didn’t see me coming.”
But then there’s the change, the dip from major to minor keys as he stops laughing. Sitting outside, I can’t see his eyes behind the dark sunglasses, but his smile quickly fades as he recounts one method of collecting a debt.
“The second time,” he continues, “you’d walk in the door and your girlfriend would be duct-taped and I’d have a gun to her head and a broomstick shoved up her ass.”
Blum pauses for a moment turning his face to mine, his last words hanging there awkwardly.
Heroin addicts will do anything for a fix, Blum tells me, things they never thought they were capable of. For Blum, that meant helping his dealer with the dirty work.
“You’re not a very nice guy if you’re collecting money for drug dealers,” he said. “At that point, I did more drugs just to erase the memories of the crazy shit I was doing to people.”
“But,” Blum is quick to point out, his voice rising, “I’ve never killed anyone.” Then he pauses, thoughtful. “At least, they never told me they were dead.” He raises his hands as if to say, "What can you do?"
And then the first quick wheeze as Blum starts laughing again.
“You feel me?” William Parrish asks again, arching an eyebrow as he asks the question, to emphasize the point.
Parrish, in his 50s, lean and boyish despite his salt and pepper hair and bald pate, is sitting across from me at a large, round table in a conference room in the depths of the Gateway Center. Gateway, a drab, modern building set amid the classic judicial architecture of the downtown courthouses in Atlanta, houses a homeless shelter and rehabilitation services.
Parrish has been around, watching the ups and downs of opiate use over the decades. His experience came first as a user and now as an addiction counselor, the needle scars dotting his thin arms evidence of more than two decades of injecting heroin.
Long regarded as a hardcore drug plaguing inner cities, experts such as Parrish are saying heroin has found new life as a drug of convenience for suburban teenagers addicted to opiate-based prescription painkillers such as OxyContin. For those young addicts, heroin has grown beyond merely a threat; it’s a cheap, dangerous and highly-addictive alternative.
Recent news headlines point to an increase of heroin abuse among teens in the unlikeliest parts of the nation:
- “Heroin Use on the Rise in Northeast Wisconsin”
- “Heroin Overdose Deaths on the Rise” in Cincinnati, Ohio.
- “Heroin Deaths On The Rise” in Simi Valley, Calif.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently reported how the city’s affluent northern suburbs were shocked by the death of three young men from heroin overdoses.
“The trajectory of it is eventually going to be of epidemic proportions,” Parrish said, looking at me squarely.
“You feel me?” he asks.
Police are seeing a different picture of heroin, however. According to Agent Daniel Dillworth of the Marietta/Cobb/Smyrna (MCS) Narcotics and Intelligence Unit in Cobb County, Ga., heroin is not a significant problem. It’s the “least likely of the whole spectrum” of drugs, Dillworth said.
“If I see more than one arrest a month [for heroin possession] it would be unusual,” he said. “It’s way down there.”
Statistics bear that out. A White House Office of National Drug Control Policy report showed heroin use among high school kids nationally drop from 3.3 percent in 2003 to 1.3 percent in 2008.
So why the discrepancy? The demographics are shifting, Parrish said. Overall the number of heroin users may have gone down, but the users have changed from inner city youths to middle class and affluent suburban kids.
And it all begins when kids start raiding their parent’s medicine cabinet, he said. They know the names of the drugs. They know what to look for: among them OxyContin, Vicodin, Loratab, dilaudid and Percocet.
“And then,” he said, “they start experimenting with it. But little do they know you can become physically or psychologically dependent on it in a number of days. When they can’t get the prescription drugs there is only one other option: [they] got to go to the streets.”
The issue is availability, said Dr. Joe Gay, an expert in opiates and executive director of Health Recovery Services in Ohio.
“[In the Midwest] we’ve seen an influx of black tar heroin from Mexico,” Gay said. “The people dealing black tar decided what they wanted to do was to make money and not have gun fights. So they made it a point of marketing to areas without an established heroin trade.” They began marketing in the suburbs, Gay said. Dealers even began delivering to the buyer much like ordering a pizza.