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    Heroin's glitzy appeal leaves mark in morgue

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 2, 2002

    In some circles, heroin has a certain dark allure. It's the drug of rock stars, jazz legends, Beat writers and rail-thin fashion models. It's a drug for people who are serious about their drugs.

    But heroin users flirt with death. In the Tampa Bay area and the rest of Florida, record numbers of them are ending up in morgues, their bodies marked with telltale needle tracks.

    The state likely set an all-time record for fatal heroin overdoses this past year, mainly because street heroin is purer and cheaper than it used to be.

    "People get involved with it through experimentation," said Shirley Coletti, founder of Operation PAR, a Tampa Bay drug treatment agency. "Some can walk away from it. Others don't realize they're addicted until they're going through withdrawal and having difficulty coping with society."

    Judging by the number of heroin arrests and overdoses, use of the drug rose sharply in Florida in the mid-1990s and then leveled off. Arrests and overdose deaths more than doubled between 1995 and 1998, then stayed at about the same level through 2000.

    Now heroin use may be rising again.

    Each year from 1998 to 2000, about 200 people in Florida died of heroin overdoses. But after only the first six months of 2001, that number had already climbed to nearly 150, according to a mid-year report from the state's two dozen medical examiners.

    Updated 2001 figures for the whole state aren't available yet. But if the trend continued, Florida would have had nearly 300 heroin deaths in the past year.

    Recently updated local figures are available. Through Dec. 1, at least 53 people in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties died of heroin overdoses -- twice as many as in 1999.

    Nearly all were white men in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s. Some were chronic addicts, others were newcomers to the drug. A few mixed heroin with cocaine. Many of them overdosed at home, in all kinds of neighborhoods.

    "We are seeing a younger population using the drug," said Gary Wenner, director of Operation PAR's four methadone clinics in this region. "They start off smoking it. Then they realize they're addicted, and they start shooting it."

    One cause of overdoses: Competition between dealers has made the drugs purer than ever. Street heroin used to be cut heavily with sugar, powdered milk or quinine, diluted to about 5 percent purity. Now the heroin in Florida is routinely almost 40 percent pure and in extreme cases has tested as high as 94 percent pure.

    Most of the world's heroin comes from opium poppies grown in Afghanistan. It remains to be seen how the war in that country will affect the heroin supply. But that won't matter much in the United States because most of the heroin in this country comes from Colombia or Mexico.

    "Colombians have perfected the manufacturing of heroin over the last five to 10 years," said Joe Kilmer, a federal Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman in Miami. "They're using their established cocaine routes to move heroin as well."

    Heroin is smuggled in mainly through Miami by "mules," people who board commercial flights after swallowing drug-stuffed balloons or latex glove fingers sewn shut, the DEA says.

    Florida drug czar Jim McDonough hopes beefed-up security in the wake of Sept. 11 will scare smugglers away.

    "When they get to the airport, they see dogs and National Guardsmen with rifles. They're not as comfortable," said McDonough, chief of Gov. Jeb Bush's Office of Drug Control Policy. "They're not going to risk 15 years in jail for swallowing 15 condoms."

    McDonough also says drug treatment centers are reporting that more addicts are coming in voluntarily to get cleaned up.

    Heroin is not America's drug of choice. It's expensive, addictive and relatively hard to get. Alcohol, marijuana and cocaine are consumed in much larger quantities, along with newer alternatives such as ecstasy or the prescription painkiller OxyContin.

    A Health and Human Services survey found that about 300,000 Americans had used heroin in 2000, compared with 3.3-million cocaine users.

    Smoking, snorting or injecting heroin brings an intense rush, a warm glow followed by an hourslong state of deep relaxation and contentment. For addicts, the drug is all that matters. Many descend into a life of dirty syringes, malnutrition, petty crime and the skin-crawling aches of withdrawal.

    "You feel fragile, like all your bones are going to break. You can't get out of bed," said Debra Goodrich of St. Petersburg, who became addicted at age 14. Now 46, she's one of more than 300 people in methadone treatment at PAR's clinic in mid-Pinellas County.

    The clinic's patients line up for their medicine early in the morning because most of them have to get to work or take their kids to school. Some have been coming to the clinic for years.

    Methadone is an oral narcotic that prevents withdrawal symptoms. Critics say methadone is just as addictive as heroin, but patients say it stabilizes them and allows them to work and live a normal life.

    "Methadone is a godsend," Goodrich said. "It takes away all my cravings for heroin."

    In the Tampa Bay area, you can buy a fix of heroin for $20 or $30, wrapped in a tiny square of tinfoil.

    "They put a 10th of a gram in there and fold it up. You could sneeze on it and blow it away," said Pinellas County sheriff's Sgt. Raimondo DeCunto, a narcotics investigator who has bought heroin while working undercover. "The kids don't like to shoot it 'cause they're afraid of the needles. They'll snort it instead."

    Addicts eventually resort to injecting it because that works better. Heroin has existed for more than a century now, and it isn't going away.

    "It's never-ending. It affects every sector of our society," said Coletti "I think the reasons today are the same as they were 25 years ago."

    Humans have grown opium since 3500 B.C., when the ancient Sumerians in what is now Iraq called it the "joy plant." From opium, heroin was developed as a painkiller by Bayer in the 1890s, but its side effects outweighed its value.

    Now a new painkiller, OxyContin, is the choice of a growing number of drug abusers who crush the tablets and snort the powder or mix it with water and inject it. These days, more Floridians are overdosing on OxyContin than heroin.

    In the first six months of 2001, 243 people in Florida died after overdosing on oxycodone -- the generic name for OxyContin -- or hydrocodone, a similar drug. That was nearly a 60 percent increase over 2000.

    "OxyContin came out of nowhere, and it's now my greatest concern as far as overdose deaths," said McDonough, Florida's drug czar. "People found the high was more pleasant and lasted longer. There's always another drug on the way."

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