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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.

"Their parents are crying, &‘this was my perfect Little League kid,' &‘This was my perfect soccer kid,' &‘my perfect straight-A kid on the way to college. Look at him now ... he's committed (several) residential burglaries,'" said Pozzi.

Some are finding themselves in Sonoma County's drug court, a final stop in the county's attempt to treat nonviolent drug offenders and keep them out of prison. The 12- to 14-month program has strict guidelines, including multiple weekly drug tests and mandatory meetings, counseling sessions and court appearances.

Currently, there are a dozen young defendants in drug court who have followed the Oxy-to-heroin path, Perry estimated.

While heroin cases are increasing, methamphetamine and marijuana remain the county's top drug problems.

"It goes up and down, stimulants, depressants," said Mike Maritzen, supervising drug counselor for Treatment Accountability for Safer Communities, a county program aiding those in the criminal justice system with addiction problem.

"In the ‘80s it was crack cocaine. The ‘90s, opiates. The past 10 years, meth. Now it seems like heroin is emerging again," said Maritzen.

The veteran counselor estimated 10 to 15 percent of his 75 to 80 clients are opiate abusers. "They're really the youngest, 22 and younger."

Statistics on heroin arrests and prosecutions in Sonoma County are not available, according to law enforcement and courthouse officials. But anecdotally, examples are plentiful:

- Two days after Thanksgiving, a young Santa Rosa man overdosed on heroin while in a parking lot in east Santa Rosa. He went into cardiac arrest and paramedics revived him. A friend told police the young man had switched to heroin following an addiction to OxyContin, said Santa Rosa Sgt. Phil Brazis.

- In late October, narcotics officers working in northwest Santa Rosa arrested a 20-year-old woman attempting to buy heroin. She told officers she'd become addicted to OxyContin and other prescription pills while in high school and now shoots heroin because it's cheaper and available, Tosti said.

- In August, a 20-year-old Sebastopol resident was stopped near downtown Sebastopol for a traffic violation. He was carrying OxyContin and heroin paraphernalia and said his Oxy addiction had led him to the cheaper and easier-to-find heroin, said Sebastopol Officer David Ginn.

At the Allano Club in Petaluma, where people go for Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, stories about prescription drug addiction leading to heroin use are common, said Ross Bracken, who manages the nonprofit facility.

"I've heard that for a couple of years now, especially with the young people," said Bracken. "All these kids are shooting heroin, smoking it. Everywhere I go I talk to people in recovery, that's what they're seeing."

A growing number of addicts are high school athletes who suffered sports injuries and got hooked on opiates while taking pills to dull the pain, said Tosti, who worked undercover narcotics cases for several years and has supervised drug investigations the last two years.

"It's a trend especially with these student athletes. They're getting banged up so bad ... (and) put on painkillers and they're not able to get off the painkillers," said Tosti.

Three of the cases in recent years involved standout athletes at Maria Carrillo and Montgomery high schools who "got hooked on Oxy, then went to heroin and a life of crime to follow," he said, declining to give names.

The problem with opiate addiction among local athletes is no surprise to legendary Montgomery High School baseball coach Russ Peterich, who retired in 2006 but remains active in the coaching and high school athletic community.

"I still work with kids who have drug problems," said Peterich, who didn't want to give details fearing athletes and their families wouldn't feel comfortable seeking his help.

"It's out there. Prescription drug (abuse) ... is running pretty rampant in high school athletes," said the 37-year baseball coach.

"It's very difficult with the pressure on athletes now with the year-around sports. I can see kids using pain medication to get beyond what they have to do, not realizing" they're headed for serious trouble, he said.

"It just kills me to see a kid hooked on that stuff. It's almost impossible to get off," said Peterich.

Peterich, who consults as a mentor to coaches and athletic directors, said drug addiction concerns and warnings are discussed among local coaches.

"You people have to be aware of what is going on with your kids ... what is going on in the drug scene, in drinking," he said. "You'd better know how to get them help."

When parents worry about their teens and drugs, the concern often involves alcohol and marijuana.

"They're not thinking about the drug sitting in the medicine cabinet," said Tosti.

The refrain is familiar to Santa Rosa police narcotics officers, who have frequently heard about high school students who got pain pills from home, such as Vicodin or OxyContin, and brought them to school or shared them at parties.

"Teens and young adults think there's nothing bad about taking Oxy pills. They have no fear of pills," said Tosti.

When the prescriptions ran out, they began buying them from friends or seeking them from dealers at costs that continued to rise.

Initially, the pills cost about $30 each. In August 2010, the maker of OxyContin changed the pills to make them tougher to abuse. The original pills began disappearing, and the ones still available were going for more than $100 apiece. The new formula, which is less potent, was available on the black market at lower prices, but abusers needed several of them to get the high they sought.

A day's supply of heroin was more like $20 to $40, said police.

At the county drug counseling offices, clients told counselors they could no longer afford the pills.

"Some clients were doing 10 (OxyContin pills) a day," said Maritzen. "They can get the same high from heroin for like $50."

Heroin is available on Santa Rosa street corners and parking lots, if you know where to look or who to ask, and for less money than pills, said Tosti.

Most of it is shipped from Mexico, via Mexican drug cartels. The most common form is black tar heroin. It is typically sold in 1 ounce amounts that look like pencil eraser-sized dark globs, which police and users often refer to as "boogers" or "points."

A more concentrated form of heroin is now surfacing in Sonoma County, Tosti said. Called "China white," the white powder is more potent than the black tar version.

Until recently, most criminal cases involving heroin centered on older addicts accused of committing misdemeanor crimes. But the new, younger generation of heroin addicts are committing more serious crimes to support their habits, according to local defense attorneys.

"Now we're associating these heroin cases with robberies and burglaries, especially residential burglaries," said Pozzi, who supervises the county's public defense attorneys that represent most local drug-crime defendants.

The middle-class kids are finding money to support their drug habits where they can, said Deputy Public Defender Ande Thomas, who also has seen the disappearance in OxyContin-related drug cases and the emergence of heroin cases.

"The middle-class kids have grown up in homes with jewelry and valuables. They've gone to friends' homes, people they come in contact with, (and) they've turned more to residential burglaries," said Thomas.

But it puts them on a dangerous path. Burglary not only carries a possible six-year prison sentence, but is also a strike under California's tough "Three Strikes" law, Thomas said. Three convictions result in a mandatory 25-year to life prison sentence.

The young defendants often are shocked to learn they could end up in prison.

"They want a slap on the wrist and a program. That's not (what happens) when you graduate to this level of crime," said Thomas.

(You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com.)

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