Heroin tightens its grip 

In Atlanta, the number of new heroin users is growing — with fatal results

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By some accounts – including Dew's research for NIDA – heroin use in Atlanta has remained steadily low, with treatment admissions decreasing.

But there have been hints here and there – a string of fatal overdoses in April, as well as other national studies – that suggest heroin, if not exactly reaching epidemic proportions in Atlanta, is gaining new and younger users.

In a 2006 study (the most recent year available), the U.S. Substance and Mental Health Services Administration found that Georgia, the nation's 10th most populous state, ranked 15th in its number of heroin users. But it ranked seventh when it came to the number of people who'd tried heroin in the past month or year.

What's more, of 20 major cities surveyed, all but three – Atlanta, Tampa and San Francisco – saw drastic declines in heroin use from 2002 to 2005. Atlanta, in fact, more than doubled its number of heroin users in that time, rising from No. 19 to No. 6.

Dew says some new users likely have been drawn to heroin through the "increasingly popular" use of prescription narcotics. He points out that prescription opiates including OxyContin, Percocet, Lortab and Vicodin are readily available on the street in Atlanta. He says those drugs can have "a gateway-type effect." It's easy to cross over from them to heroin.

It also seems that the availability of heroin in Atlanta – including its source – is changing. In October, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration made a surprising discovery. Undercover agents orchestrating a deal in a Gwinnett County subdivision discovered a kilo of black-tar heroin, as well as 22 kilos of cocaine and 270 pounds of marijuana.

Though the amount of heroin confiscated was relatively small, the type was significant. Black tar is usually seen on the West Coast. East Coast heroin, on the other hand, is typically finer and whiter in appearance, and South American in origin. The mere existence of the crude, Mexican-made, black-tar variety is indicative that heroin is coming to Atlanta from new sources – namely the Mexican drug cartels that have dominated the Atlanta drug trade over the past decade.

What's more, the discovery that the heroin was available in suburban Gwinnett County suggests the heroin trade is expanding beyond its traditional boundaries.

For years, the only real marketplace for heroin in Atlanta has been a Westside neighborhood called "the Bluff," bounded by the old Bankhead Highway (now Donald L. Hollowell Parkway) to the north and MLK Drive to the south, and spreading west from Northside Drive.

Jack Killorin, who heads the local branch of the federal narcotics task force called HIDTA (for High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area), says he doesn't want to sound "overly alarmist" when discussing what, for years, has been Atlanta's rather tame heroin market. But he does say there have been signs of change.

"Usually, if you stayed within the parameters of the Bluff you were seeing what was the majority heroin problem for the state," Killorin says. "But some of the suburban counties have reported seizures, and there's been some discussion in the law enforcement community of folks seeing more heroin."

Along with heroin's emergence in the suburbs, there is a growing curiosity among younger users. Even the NIDA study, which showed that overall heroin use was down in Atlanta, concluded that a growing number of young metro Atlantans were seeking treatment for heroin addiction. NIDA reports that while more than 80 percent of people seeking help for heroin were older than 35, most of the rest – 12 percent – were less than 17 years old.

One person who closely watches suburban drug use says addicts seeking treatment have gotten progressively younger.

"Most of what we see are pretty young," says Gina Hutto, director of addictive diseases for the Gwinnett-Newton-Rockdale Community Service Board. "I would say probably early 20s, 18 to 25 range, if even that."

Hutto says that in her experience, young people have gotten more daring and experimental in their drug use. While heroin users still account for a relatively low proportion of suburban drug users, she's seen a slight increase in them recently – and a general change in young people's mentality toward drugs.

"Years ago, you saw people that had one drug of choice," Hutto says. "Cocaine came on the scene, and then of course meth. But the kids nowadays just use anything and everything. You just didn't see that years ago. It's scary."

On a Friday in early April, Bridget became the first to die.

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