Youth drug trends: Meth use declines; pot, heroin on the rise
For four years, one Dakota County juvenile sustained his prescription drug addiction by raiding other people’s medicine cabinets.
People don’t realize the bathroom is the one room in a house that gives people complete privacy to snoop, to gather, to take, says one Dakota County chemical health social worker.
Prescription drug abuse among teens is a growing trend in Dakota County that officials say is a leading cause for the rise in heroin addictions among young adults.
Past-year use of prescription pain killers was reported by 6.3 percent of Minnesota 12th-graders in 2010, according to a January 2011, National Institute on Drug Abuse report.
Those types of prescription narcotics, like Oxycontin and Vicodin, are highly addictive opiates that produce a placid euphoria.
Youths who try them may not realize their inherent danger, said Carol Falkowski, Minnesota Department of Health drug abuse strategy officer, because they have grown up in a pill-popping culture.
“Eighty-five percent of our population takes pills every day for one reason or another,” Falkowski said. “Children growing up are very used to seeing pill-taking. They see parents and relatives take pills, they may have siblings on medication. They see kids in grade schools line up at lunch time at the nurse’s office to take pills. It’s part of the culture.”
Apple Valley High School resource officer Michael Eliason said some teens use their own prescription drugs to get high.
“We had one case this year where the kid was grinding up his Adderall and snorting it,” Eliason said.
There were no charges filed, but his parents were advised to bring the student in for a chemical health assessment.
“He’s just taking it a different way, so there’s not much you can do,” Eliason said. “It’s his prescription.”
Once addicted to prescription drugs, powerful cravings can lead to smoking or injecting heroin to find the same high without need of doctors or pharmacies.
Chase, 22, a recovering addict formerly of Rosemount, said his drug use in high school escalated rapidly and included prescription drugs, marijuana, ecstasy and cocaine.
What started as weekend recreation overtook his life, pulling him from his family and toward friends who used.
“In the drug world, it’s like drugs are pretty much your whole life,” Chase said. “Pretty soon the only thing you talk about is getting high and being high. The only thing you think about is where you can get more with your drug-addict friends.”
The day after graduation, he used $300 of gift money he’d received on cocaine, snorted most of it in his car at a nearby townhouse complex.
He was later pulled over and arrested for possession of the small amount left.
Chase later pawned the laptop he’d been given for college so he could purchase drugs.
Partying was his priority in college, and he failed his first semester, dropping out after his parents refused to continue the loan.
He had long decided never to inject a drug or smoke methamphetamine, his threshold of what he considered an addict.
His lowest point was freebasing heroin.
“That was the worst experience of my life,” said Chase, who has completed treatment and is pursuing a drug counseling degree to help others find their way out.
The types of cases Chase is likely to encounter in Minnesota are changing.
The state Health Department reported that from January to June 2011, metro treatment admissions for heroin and other opiates topped those for marijuana.
“That’s unprecedented … in the Twin Cities,” Falkowski said.
Over 3 percent of those heroin/opiate admissions were minors, according to the MDH January 2012, Drug Abuse Trends report.
Minnesota’s teenagers are using heroin at a higher rate than in other states.
According to the Minnesota Student Survey, 1.4 percent of Minnesota 12th-graders had used heroin in the past 12 months in 2010, higher than the 0.9 percent national rate.
Falkowski believes heroin’s allure is partly due to Minnesota’s cheap yet potent supply of Mexican heroin.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency reported last year that Mexican “black tar” heroin available in the Twin Cities was as little as 25 cents per pure milligram, the cheapest of 21 cities studied.
One Dakota County social worker said heroin addiction is particularly problematic among suburban young adults, most of whom abused prescription drugs as teens.
The social worker, who asked her name not be used to protect her clients, said one juvenile she knows regularly bought and used heroin in public restrooms in an Apple Valley retail store.
She said the bathroom is very isolated in a corner and is a perfect spot for such activity.
Long-term use of heroin leads to mental and physical problems that include sweating, insomnia, impaired vision, as well as lung, liver, kidney and brain damage, seizures and even death.
Once addicted, users keep taking heroin not only to get high, but to avoid intense, painful withdrawal symptoms that include stomach cramps, vomiting and fever.
Price to pay
The type of heroin available in Minnesota is extremely potent and dangerous, said Dakota County Drug Task Force Cmdr. Dan Bianconi.
“What was 50 percent pure four or five years ago is now 70 percent to 90 percent pure, now,” Bianconi said.
Chase said he used heroin after smoking marijuana with a friend who “talked him into doing it” even though he was scared.
“He’s like, ‘It’s not that bad,’” Chase said. “And, he was willing to share it for free.”
Bianconi said users often are given their first high for free, then once they are hooked, the bargains end.
After smoking the heroin, Chase said everything started spinning and he felt “like a big shot.”
Craving more drugs, he and some friends drove to Minnetonka to rob an alleged drug dealer rumored to have $2,000 and drugs stashed in his bedroom at his parents’ Minnetonka home.
As the victim slept, Chase and his friends searched in vain for the stash.
Frustrated, they woke up the alleged dealer, who started fighting and screaming.
“We tried to suffocate him and make him pass out so he would stop screaming,” Chase said.
The boy’s brother ran in, calling 911. Chase’s friends fled but were caught and arrested.
Chase evaded police until the next day when officers knocked on the door of his home.
In court-ordered treatment, Chase and his roommate found they had a lot in common, including families dedicated to their rehabilitation.
The roommates played chess late into the evening, sharing laughs and future plans.
“His family owned a bar,” Chase said. “They were well-off. He had everything set for him. All he had to do was get clean and he’d have college paid for.”
Chase successfully completed treatment and left.
His friend’s new roommate was being treated for heroin addiction.
Within a month, Chase’s friend, who had never tried heroin, overdosed on the drug and died.
“I know how deadly heroin is,” Chase said. “It puts people in graves or institutions.”
Law enforcement officials say the path by which most users take to heroin is laced with marijuana.
Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom called marijuana “by far the most frequently used illegal drug in America,” but said people wrongly often dismiss it as harmless.
Backstrom called pot “America’s most dangerous illegal drug” in a June 15, 2010, paper blasting the movement to legalize marijuana.
In an interview with Sun Thisweek, Backstrom said: “There’s a common perception that marijuana is no different than alcohol … but the simple truth is that it’s dangerous and destructive.”
A January 2011 Drug Enforcement Agency report stated 79 percent of the nation’s adolescent treatment admissions involved marijuana as the primary or secondary substance.
In the 17 years as Apple Valley High School resource officer, Eliason said the popularity of other drugs including ecstasy, cocaine and methamphetamine has waned, but marijuana is a constant.
“There’s becoming a social acceptance to pot,” Eliason said.
Dakota County Community Corrections Deputy Director Jim Skoivil, agreed, stating marijuana is the drug he is “most concerned about,” because of its cancer-causing properties, mind-altering effect on young growing minds and bodies, and how it often leads youth toward escalating crime.
“But as a society, we’ve rationalized marijuana so well,” he said.
Like heroin, Bianconi said, the marijuana smoked today is an extremely potent high-grade drug compared what was available 20 or 30 years ago.
Backstrom said THC levels have increased from 1 percent in the 1970s to an average of over 13 percent today.
He also cited studies showing teens who smoke pot at least once a month are almost 26 times more likely to use another illegal drug than teens who never smoked marijuana.
According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, youths ages 12 – 17 who smoked marijuana were 85 times more likely to use cocaine than those who did not.
Money raised through marijuana sales finances crime, gang and drug-dealer activities, Backstrom noted, and he advocates additional controls on it.
“We need to recognize the threat it represents and continue our efforts to control it, prevent our youth from starting to use it, aggressively enforce our laws against those who illegally cultivate, distribute and possess it, and effectively treat those who have become addicted to it,” he said.