Heroin use in county on the rise

  • This young Sebastopol resident had a tattoo of the molecular diagram of Oxycontin tattooed to his bicep during one of his highs with the the drug. Now in drug court rehab, the image serves as a daily reminder of his past addiction. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2012

Heroin is making a comeback in Sonoma County, where a growing number of middle-class teens and young adults are using the highly addictive drug.

Once cloaked in an aura of stigma, the dangerous drug is viewed by a new generation of young users as an inexpensive alternative to pricey or unavailable opiate-type prescription drugs such as OxyContin.

The unexpected increase in young, middle-class heroin junkies has emerged in Sonoma County over the last year, according to police, defense lawyers, drug counselors and addicts. It is challenging the traditional stereotype of heroin addiction, which many still associate as a problem concentrated in poor, urban neighborhoods.

"In a relatively short period of time there's been a dramatic shift in drug usage among our young kids," said Mike Perry, a chief deputy public defender who works in the county's drug court.

"It's shocking how many 20-year-olds we have who started off in Oxy and now are doing heroin," Perry said. "We're seeing more middle-class kids get hooked."

Many of the local heroin junkies were once-promising high school students. They started by popping prescription painkillers recreationally, at school and at parties.

Some were athletes, given opiate-type pain pills for injuries.

"The progression has them moving on to shooting up heroin," said Santa Rosa police Lt. Mike Tosti. "We're seeing a rise in this. They're getting younger and younger and younger."

"These aren't street people. These are lots of kids who should be in college," said Kathleen Pozzi, Sonoma County's interim public defender. "They are often remarkable kids from middle- to upper-class homes."

Instead of making college plans, many are living for the daily fixes, stealing to pay for their prescription pills and heroin.

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