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.