HOOKED ON HEROIN
SEPTEMBER 17, 1996
Heroin, once again, is on the rise. Experts blame the aura of glamour, of creative energy, that has been traditionally attached to the drug. Rod Minott of KCTS reports from one the problem's new epicenters: Seattle.
GARCIA: (singing ba-ba-da-ba-ba-ba) Please call me baby.
ROD MINOTT, KCTS: The man waiting anxiously for a phone call is a heroin junkie. He asked us not to reveal his identity other than calling him Garcia.
GARCIA: It's a quarter after 1, right? Oh, man, I sure wish this sucker would ring.
MR. MINOTT: On a recent afternoon in Seattle, we accompanied him for four hours, only asking him to do whatever he did normally.
GARCIA: Come on. I got one more minute, one more minute, one more minute for the call, then I'm making another one.
MR. MINOTT: In broad daylight, near a busy street, Garcia paged several drug dealers by pay phone in a quest for heroin.
GARCIA: There he is right now. (on phone) Yo! Hello. I would like to get a 30 of white or brown from you.
GARCIA: Now, this here is a $30 bag, and it's a damn good bag.
MR. MINOTT: Within two hours, Garcia had his purchase and was getting ready to shoot up black tar heroin, a highly addictive opiate drug that comes from Mexico and is named for its tar-like character.
GARCIA: She's in the vein now. See, right now I'm gettin' a rush because it's good dope.
MR. MINOTT: Garcia has been a heroin addict for 31 years.
GARCIA: This track runs from right in here to up, up, up here.
MR. MINOTT: A life recorded in the trail of needle scars on his arm.
GARCIA: I like heroin. I use it because it, it takes care of the pain for the minute. You know, for the moment, I can lose myself, I can, uh, forget the bull--you know, and, uh, escape.
MR. MINOTT: But many users aren't escaping deadly heroin overdoses. As in many other big cities, Seattle has seen its heroin-related deaths skyrocket to record levels, quadrupling since 1985. Last year, there were 130 fatalities linked to overdose. And according to recent federal Health & Human Services figures between 1990 and 1994, heroin-related trips to hospital emergency rooms more than tripled in Seattle. Nationally, those emergency room visits jumped 68 percent between 1988 and 1994.
RICHARD HARUFF, Assistant Medical Examiner: This is a collection of things. We've got a syringe there. The black tar is shown there, and also there's some white powder.
MR. MINOTT: Seattle's assistant medical examiner, Richard Haruff, has called the heroin deaths an epidemic, something which he's carefully documented through photographs.
RICHARD HARUFF: This is showing an arm of an individual, died of a heroin overdose, and the small blue area in this slide is the injection site.
MR. MINOTT: Haruff has also collected spoons found with the bodies of heroin victims. Addicts use the spoons to heat heroin into a liquid.
RICHARD HARUFF: I don't know why I collect them. It's just because they're so graphic, and they tell the tale so well, and they also are, are a memory of each death.
MR. MINOTT: Those deaths now average two to three a week. Haruff says victims are mostly white males in their mid to late 30's.
RICHARD HARUFF: Heroin is a very potent depressant of the brain function, and it causes depression of all functions of the brain, in particular in terms of causing overdose deaths, it depresses the part of the brain that controls respiration. So in general, the person stops breathing.
ALONZO PLOUGH, Director, Public Health Department: (talking to individual) We have that meeting scheduled next week to find out more about, uh, the U District needle exchange.
MR. MINOTT: Alonzo Plough heads the King County Public Health Department. He and other experts attribute the rise in deaths to the fact that more users are mixing heroin with other types of drugs, as well as alcohol.
ALONZO PLOUGH: These are accidental deaths in 85 percent, 90 percent of the cases, and 80 percent of those cases involve mult-drug use. So there is something about the way the drug is being used that clearly may be changing, though I, I can't say that there's been an increase in heroin use, in the prevalence of heroin use.
MR. MINOTT: Even though he shoots up two to three times a day, Garcia says he's not afraid of overdosing.
GARCIA: A lot of guys will drink. I don't drink anymore. I haven't had a drink of alcohol in, oh, many years, and then they'll go out and slam a 20 bag or 30 bag of heroin, asking for trouble.
MR. MINOTT: That trouble, Garcia says, comes when inexperienced users inject heroin, which has gotten much more potent in recent years. Heroin used to be seen as a drug of choice for the down and out. But in recent years, federal surveys show the drug has spread more to middle and working class people, as well as teenagers and young adults. It's gotten to the point where even this Espresso bar in the city's trendy Capitol Hill neighborhood has a sign warning people not to shoot up inside the bathroom. Ron Jackson, who heads a methadone treatment center, blames heroin's resurgence in part on the young re-glamorizing an old drug.
RON JACKSON, Evergreen Treatment Center: It's a new generation, a new group of people, a new "in" group endorsing the use, people forgetting about some of the negative consequences or glossing over some of the negative consequences.
MR. MINOTT: That view was echoed recently in a "Rolling Stone" Magazine article which labeled Seattle "Junkie Town," a place where many young people attracted to the city's so-called "grunge music" scene end up hooked on heroin. "Rolling Stone" and others point to the deaths of several high-profile Seattle musicians as proof the city is junkie-friendly. (music playing) Two years ago rock star Kurt Cobain committed suicide while high on heroin. At least three other Seattle rock musicians have also died of heroin-related overdoses in the past six years. Jackson says among some musicians, heroin is seen as a rite of passage.
RON JACKSON: Use can be sort of idealized in that somehow this is an admission ticket to artistry or to credibility in that particular field. You're nowhere in this alternative music scene or whatever you want to call it unless you've used heroin.
MR. MINOTT: But Charles Cross, a Seattle journalist, says those rock musician deaths can't be blamed on the city's music scene.
CHARLES CROSS, Editor, "The Rocket": It's not unique to this segment of society. That doesn't mean it's not a tragic problem, and it doesn't mean that we don't need to respond to it as a society, but it's unfair in some ways that we perceive this one segment of our society, particularly creative, young individuals, as if they have a bigger problem than other people, when statistics don't necessarily support that.
MR. MINOTT: Experts say heroin abuse is also on the rise because younger users are inhaling or smoking the drug and later start injecting, once they become addicted. Although police say there's been only a slight jump in heroin trafficking, these street kids, who asked not to be identified, say the drug is easily available.
MR. MINOTT: So how easy is it to get heroin in a city like Seattle?
FIRST UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Downtown's pretty, it's pretty easy. I've only been in town a couple of days and--
SECOND UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We just had four friends that took off to go get a bunch. I mean, it's not even hard. You go--you know the person, you go get it, and you're off doing it.
MR. MINOTT: Both say they've used heroin and found it highly addictive.
SECOND UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's basically the first reaction of doing it is you end up throwing up and you end up going crazy and you end up itching, and it makes you really sick, and then after that, you know, it's just like an intense rush, and you love it, and then you hate it, and then you love it, and you hate it, and even if you hate it, you do it anyway. I mean, it's like--it's kind of like a controlling government. It takes over, and there's nothing you can do.
SINGER ON AD: (scene of male strung on in bathroom) It's the freshest feeling, the coolest high, so pick up some heroin and shoot for the sky.
MR. MINOTT: In order to reach kids like these, anti-drug groups have started airing ads warning of the drug's dangers.
SINGERS ON AD: Heroin for the rest of your life.
MR. MINOTT: A program to stop the spread of AIDS, Needle Exchange, has also been useful in putting people into drug rehab, but those drug facilities report they're already working at capacity, dispensing methadone and counseling heroin abusers. Health Director Plough says even though the program may not curtail drug use, he does feel needle exchanges are helping to stop the spread of a deadlier problem--AIDS.
ALONZO PLOUGH: The national data that have looked at this and the study that was funded by the NIH has shown as clearly as you can in epidemiologic studies that needle exchange does not promote drug use, nor does it promote crime, so that's fairly definitive national studies, and it has proven to be one of "the" most effective measures to reduce HIV-AIDS transmission and Seattle leads the nation in the low rate of AIDS infection amongst injection drug users.
SPOKESMAN: There's the deal right there. It's going down right now.
MR. MINOTT: Despite anti-drug efforts being made, such as sting operations, police say it's been hard to stop illegal drug dealing.
SPOKESMAN: The two key players have been nabbed. Nice job.
LT. FRED HILL, Seattle Police, Narcotics Unit: We feel somewhat overwhelmed only in the sense that it, it seems that if you take three or four dealers off the street, there are three or four new ones to take their place.
MR. MINOTT: As for Garcia, he insists he'll never quit using heroin. He plans to keep on shoplifting and dealing drugs to support his habit.
GARCIA: I like it. It's my wife. It's my life. You know, I give up--I give up everything for this. I wouldn't wish this disease upon my worst enemy, you know, I wouldn't, you know, but, uh, uh, I like it myself, and I'll continue on.
MR. MINOTT: Others like medical examiner Haruff say they haven't given up hope that more people can still be saved from heroin abuse. But for now, Haruff says he sees no let up in his growing collection of spoons and syringes.