Apr 25, 2014

In Plano as in New York City, Heroin Is a Killer

Photo illustration by Danielle Spragg/Flickr.

Photo illustration by Danielle Spragg/Flickr.

By Emily Compton
For Reporting Texas

Heroin continues to haunt Plano as the drug gains traction across the U.S.

In 2013, seven people died of heroin overdoses in Plano – the same number as in 1997, when the Dallas suburb gained notoriety for a sudden uptick in heroin deaths among its youth. Today, heroin deaths remain grimly steady but with a difference: The average victim is now 30, according to Plano police.

There were 371 heroin overdose deaths in Texas in 2012 compared to 111 deaths in 1999, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. While Plano doesn’t claim   the bulk of these deaths – 41 Houston-area men and women died of a heroin overdose in 2013, according to the Houston Chronicle – Plano still has the reputation of being a “heroin town.”

That reputation grew in the late nineties when the Plano “epidemic” received national attention, including an MTV documentary, “True Life: Fatal Dose,” in 1998 and an article in Rolling Stone, “Texas Heroin Massacre” in 1999. That this was happening in Plano, a wealthy suburb, challenged the idea of where heroin was being used and who was using it.

Why is Plano’s problem off the media radar today? “[D]espite some high profile cases,” said  Selwyn Crawford, criminal justice editor at the Dallas Morning News, “from what we know heroin deaths are not on a rapid or rampant increase” compared to other cities.

“There was heavy coverage [in the past] because there appeared to be an alarming trend of heroin deaths,” Crawford said. “Any time you have a lot of death in a particular community, the media will tend to look at those a little harder.”

Today, heroin addiction is up all across the country. It grabbed headlines in February with the death of 46-year-old actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who succumbed to an “acute mixed drug intoxication including heroin, cocaine, benzodiazepines and amphetamine” in New York City, according to the medical examiner.

Hoffman’s death also spotlighted the increased age of heroin users in America, as well as the difficulty in kicking the habit. Between 2007 and 2013, the number of heroin users grew 80 percent, from 373,000 to 669,000, according to a report from the Department of Health and Human Services. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 3,094 people died of a heroin overdose in the United States in 2010, up 55 percent from 2000.

Nationwide, the largest percentage of drug-induced deaths, 27 percent or 10,953 deaths, occurred among adults aged 40 to 49 in 2010, according to the CDC.

Drug experts in the Dallas area said the recent overdoses in Plano are skewing older, too, due to individuals’ dependence on prescription drugs and the use of recreational drugs at a higher level of purity. Younger people are still using heroin in Plano, they just aren’t dying as often, the experts said, something they attribute to the educational awareness programs targeted at parents and students in Plano schools as well as a higher rate of young people seeking treatment.

Jane C. Maxwell, a senior research scientist at University of Texas at Austin who specializes in substance abuse, said that while available data doesn’t clearly explain the trend toward deaths among older heroin users nationwide, she speculates that a higher tolerance for heroin leads such people to up their intake to a point their bodies can’t handle.

“Older addicts that have been using longer are used to a higher level of heroin,” Maxwell said. “They require a purer heroin than someone who just started using,” which results in a higher chance of death.

The Drug Enforcement Administration said one reason heroin use is on the rise is because of its increased availability and the fact that it is cheaper than prescription painkillers, which can create initial dependence. Prescription medicine can cost $20 to $60 per pill or more, depending on the drug, while heroin costs $3 to $10 a bag, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. Heroin is easily swapped for pills because it produces a similar high.

In Plano, reports of the seven people died who from a heroin overdose last year haven’t made national news because there wasn’t a concentrated number of young people dying, according to Plano police. In contrast, Plano made national headlines when heroin claimed the lives of 15 city residents between 1995 and 1999, all but one of them younger than 22.

David Tilley, public information officer of the Plano Police Department, joined the force as a patrol officer in 1997, when the “Plano heroin epidemic” was at its height.

Rather than keeping it quiet, the department emphasized transparency, Tilley said.  “We said ‘This is what’s happening.’ We didn’t try to hide it.”

At the time, it was an accepted fact that heroin was present in every community across North Texas and across the nation, Tilley said. Plano was different because kids as young as 14 were dying there. The city became a window into the harsh reality of teen drug addiction.

“Plano just happened to make national news because there were a lot of teens dying of overdoses,” Tilley said. “It was a tragedy.”

No single cause drove the Plano epidemic, but Tilley said he thinks the simple answer is that kids were using because their friends were doing it and didn’t understand the dangers. Many kids had to see a friend die to truly grasp the dangers of drug addiction, he said.

Plano law enforcement and schools reacted. Police hired a full-time narcotics investigator as a result of the epidemic and came up with a plan involving public education and community awareness and extending it countywide. Law enforcement teamed up with substance abuse agencies, schools and health care organizations to form the Collin County Substance Abuse Coalition in 2004. The coalition worked to increase awareness of the problem. One of the partnership’s education initiatives includes a presentation aimed at parents. It uses a mock bedroom of a typical teenager to teach parents how to look for signs that their child may be using drugs. The coalition still meets on a regular basis to discuss the issue.

Tilley said that now other communities look to Plano for guidance on how to combat drug abuse.

Each of Plano’s nine secondary schools has such a substance abuse prevention specialist on staff. Dawne Niethamer, who works with students and parents at Plano Senior High School, said, “Kids have access to heroin in Plano. This is an affluent community, and the drug is available.”

She credits better education of parents and kids for the decrease in fatal overdoses among Plano’s youth. Parental involvement is the best way to educate kids about drugs and watch for abuse, Niethamer said. “Now, kids are using weed more than they are turning to hard drugs like heroin.”

David Dropkin, program director at Dallas County Treatment Center, said heroin is becoming more readily available in the Dallas area due to its less expensive price tag and Texas’ proximity to Mexico, a primary source of heroin. “Texas now has the third-largest opiate addict treatment enrollment” in the nation.

Many of the addicts seeking treatment at the center are in their early 20s, according to Dropkin.

Maxwell, who studies substance abuse trends in Texas, said that over 50 percent of addicts entering treatment are under the age of 30 in Texas.

Daniel Chen, a Dallas doctor who specializes in drug addiction, has been working with heroin addicts, including patients from Plano, since he started his practice 33 years ago. He has treated patients ranging in age from a 12-year-old girl who would shoot heroin between her toes to men and women in their 60s and up.

“When people get hooked on heroin, they don’t want treatment initially,” Chen said, in part because it’s difficult for heroin addicts to believe they can turn their life around.

Chen said methadone and suboxone are both effective treatments for heroin addiction but that it can be difficult for patients to ever rid themselves completely of these substitute drugs. But it is possible.

Chen offered an example of how young people can pull themselves from the throes of drug addiction.

“I treated a UT-Dallas student who was very smart – had a 4.0 GPA – but he was using heroin,” Chen said. “I treated him with suboxone, and in six months, he was completely drug free. Now, he works with a program at the university as a mentor for students who have struggled with drug abuse.”