HEROIN IN LANCASTER COUNTY
RIDING A WHITE HORSE INTO HELL
Heroin Arrests Have More Than Doubled Here in the Last 5 Years and a Majority are Now in the Suburbs and Rural Areas, Not in the City
Adam is the last person you’d think would put a heroin needle in his arm.
Good-looking, athletic and charming, Adam was a popular kid in his suburban Lancaster County high school. His Mennonite parents raised him to honor God, his family and his community. They taught him the dangers of drugs. So did the schools.
And yet he stuck a heroin needle in his arm. Soon, he was addicted, swept up in the heroin epidemic that is washing over every corner of Lancaster County.
Heroin arrests have more than doubled in the last five years. The majority of those arrests are now in the county, not the city.
People, mostly young people, are dying here of overdoses. In fact, Lancaster had more people die of heroin-only overdoses than did the entire city of Philadelphia last year.
Lancaster General Hospital's emergency room has seen a near doubling of heroin overdose cases in just the past two years, from 43 in 2012 to 82 in the past year.
“Heroin is now the No. 1 abused drug in Lancaster County,” said John Burkhart, who heads the county-wide drug task force. “It’s the most dangerous drug and it’s everywhere, in every single town and borough in Lancaster.”
Lancaster County is not alone in this heroin epidemic, although it seems particularly hard hit because of the easy access to New York City, Philadelphia and Baltimore.
Pennsylvania has an estimated 40,000 users, making it the third highest state for heroin use.
Although Lancaster, York and Dauphin counties have only 10 percent of the state’s population, they had 20 percent of deaths from heroin-only overdoses last year.
Last year 124 people around the state died of heroin-only overdoses.
Of those, 13 were in Dauphin County, six were in Lancaster County and six in York County.
Already this year, York County has had 19 heroin overdoses.
Nationwide, the most recent government numbers show heroin users nearly doubled between 2007 and 2012.
It's called junk, dope, horse, H, but heroin by any name has lost the scary stigma among young people that it had in the 1960s.
What is most worrisome is that there seems to be no end in sight.
The worldwide supply of poppies, grown to be turned into opiates and then heroin or painkillers, is at a record high, and not just in Afghanistan but in Latin American countries like Mexico, according to a 2014 United Nations report.
Which is one of the reasons heroin use is exploding. It is cheap.
To make matters worse, there has been a noticeable increase in the amount of bulk heroin coming into Lancaster County recently.
Burkhart said two to three years ago, the task force was seeing just tiny bits of bulk heroin, 10 grams or less, the size of a Fig Newton cookie, during their raids and arrests. But last year and the first half of this year, larger amounts were confiscated – 100 grams or more each time (the size of a bar of soap) and packaging supplies were discovered, too.
That amount, 100 grams, amounts to 100 to 200 doses of heroin.
Burkhart fears Lancaster County might become a distribution hub for heroin.
“Not just users are everywhere,” said Burhart. “Dealers, too.”
A review of recent police reports show heroin arrests were made in Manheim Township, Lititz, New Holland, Elizabethtown, East Lampeter, West Lampeter, Mount Joy, Little Britain Twp., Columbia Borough, Fulton Township, Lancaster city and the Park City Center parking lot.
Police all over the county say they are noting an increase in heroin and an increase in burglaries, shoplifting and outright robberies which they believe are a product of people desperate to fund their habit.
Just this summer, a driver police said was high on heroin and alcohol crashed into a car driven by recent high school graduate Meredith Demko, killing her.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study that shows heroin use now is predominately among white, middle class young people and spread nearly equally between males and females.
“We’re definitely seeing the heroin in Elizabethtown in the last couple years,” said police Lt. John Emrick. “And I would venture to say that a lot of our retail thefts are related to people hooked on heroin or prescription opiates like oxycodone.”
Oxycontin is the brand name for a popular prescription painkiller that contains oxycodone. But oxycodone is an opiate that is used in many different prescription drugs.
With the crackdown and cost of these drugs, many people are switching to heroin.
A generation ago, heroin was mainly used by poor, inner-city black youth, according to the study.
Nowadays, heroin has become the drug of 20-something white kids with a few bucks in their pocket and it’s become an attractive and affordable escape from reality.
“I come from a good family,” said Adam, 26, a muscular, fair-skinned young man. (Adam did not want his real name used to protect his parents who haven't told anyone about their son's addiction.) “I don’t blame them at all. They have done everything for me. It started because I was used to being the popular kid all the time growing up. But when I graduated, I was just another kid.”
A friend gave Adam some Oxycontin in college. It boosted his confidence and he loved the way it made him feel. He became addicted to the pills but they got to be very expensive. Adam had to start selling them to make enough money to buy more pills for himself.
But it wasn’t until he graduated and came home from his large urban university in another state that he discovered heroin. Right in his own backyard. Right in the rural farmland of Lancaster County.
“My friend and I noticed there was so much heroin around. We said to each other, “let’s try this stuff that everybody’s talking about.”
Many of the people using heroin started just like Adam – with a little pop of a painkiller. Which made them feel euphoric and wonderful because painkillers are mostly opiates that stimulate the pleasure sensors in the brain.
Then they got addicted. Then they couldn’t afford the $80 price tag on a single pill. And then, conveniently, heroin arrived in mass quantities with a similar but better high – and it was much, much less expensive. About $10 for a “hit” or a “bag.”
It was a no-brainer, except that few people have a clear understanding of how addictive and destructive heroin is, until it is too late.
“There is no happy ending to heroin,” said Mark, whose son died last year with a heroin needle still in his arm. “It’s jail or death. My son did both.”
Mark did not want his son or himself identified in this story because he said his son’s death caused so much pain in the family, he didn’t want them to have to revisit it. Others wanted to have only their first names used or they wanted their names completely changed so they could not be implicated in any illegal activity they describe.
Mark is still working as a professional in a well-known Lancaster business. But, he’s not sure what life has left for him after his cheerful, 20-something son died of a heroin overdose.
“I know my son would never have done this. He would never have taken heroin if he knew how much his family is suffering now.”
“It’s frightening because it seems to be a little more potent, which is when you run into overdoses,” said New Holland police Chief, Donald Bowers.
John Fiorell, Southern Regional Police chief thinks that’s all part of the supplier’s plan. Put out a highly potent dose so people get hooked right away and they need that high dose to keep getting high. Therefore they need more heroin.
MORE IN THIS SERIES
PROFILES OF ADDICTS
ABOUT THE PHOTOS
COMING THIS WEEK
• 10 A.M. MONDAY: Join reporter Susan Baldrige and photograper Dan Marschka on LancasterOnline for a discussion of this series.
• 10 A.M. TUESDAY: Ask questions of a drug-abuse expert and a heroin addict on LancasterOnline.
“We think heroin use has been growing for about five years,” said Gary Tennis, who is in charge of the state’s drug and alcohol programs. “We’re now seeing it in every school district in the state.”
Which means the drug has spread so far and so wide here that no one is insulated from exposure to heroin, no matter what their upbringing.
Which explains how a nice young man from what he describes as a “Christian family” ends up with a heroin needle in his arm.
“At first I snorted it,” said Adam, “and I was hooked right away. I had to get it. I would do anything. I stole, stole from my parents. I’m not proud of that.”
He said more and more people he knew were injecting heroin and saying how much better the “rush” was, how much higher the high.
“I wanted to try that but I didn’t even know how. So a friend injected me the first time and then I could do it myself after that.”
Adam still has a scar from all the times he shot heroin into his veins.
After a couple relapses and tens of thousands of dollars out of his family’s pockets for detox and rehab, he has been clean for the last several months.
No matter what his future, he will always have the scar. “When I look at it, it’s a good reminder,” he said. “Of what I went through. What I've put my family through.”
Here’s a tragic irony in Billy’s life.
His mom knew he was in a bad spot to get well from heroin.
After all, the small New England state where he lived was crawling with heroin. In fact five of the governors of states there banded together to fight against what they are calling an "epidemic of heroin" in that region.
Vermont’s Gov. Peter Shumlin had spent his entire State of the State address detailing how bad the heroin problem was there.
So Billy’s mom sent him out of state. She found a place she was sure he would be safe.
A treatment facility in the beautiful farmlands of Lancaster County.
Which is where he learned how to inject the drug instead of snort it.
“I think there’s more heroin here than even back home,” said Billy, who became homeless recently after his recovery house did a drug test and found out he was still using.
Heroin users today are mostly like Billy -- white, middle and upper class, equally male and female, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
John Burkart, who heads the county drug task force, said people who experiment with the drug don’t seem to realize how addictive it is, that they are entering a trap.
“We see heroin here in Lancaster that is 72 percent pure, which is high,” said Burkhart. “And it’s cheap. If people were abusing oxycodone, they were paying $1 a milligram, sometimes $80 a pill. Heroin is much cheaper and readily available.”
Which is exactly how Billy (not his real name) started on heroin.
He smoked marijuana in high school and a few of his friends urged him to try Ecstasy and then snort some painkillers, like Percocet, which kids refer to as blueberries because of the size and shape.
An avid lacrosse and soccer player, Billy tried not to let the drugs interfere with the sports he loved. But when he graduated and went to college, his addiction grew.
“I stole from my mom. I pawned her jewelry and spaced apart all the earrings so she wouldn’t notice right away,” said Billy, 25.
He didn’t do it without shame and guilt, however.
“My mom is so sweet. She’s an elementary school teacher. No one in my family even smokes cigarettes. I’m by far the black sheep,” Billy said. “By far.”
He began to use Oxycontin about four years ago, he thinks. But that got really, really expensive.
“I got up to a $150 a day habit,” he said. “I owed my dealer $4,000. I stole my mom’s credit card to fill up my dealer’s gas tank.”
Another friend urged him to try heroin.
“It was fantastic, wonderful. I fell in love with the feeling. And it’s cheap. A bag costs $10.”
He started snorting heroin whenever he could get it.
But the worst part, Billy said, is withdrawal.
“You’re so sick, you feel like you’re dying. You want to die. It’s like the worst flu you’ve ever had, it’s horrible.”
Billy went through that this year, when he finally confessed to his family that he was using heroin and needed to go to rehab.
But even during rehab, Billy relapsed and started using again. He started injecting the drug to get a better high.
The treatment facility told him he had two choices - let them destroy the drugs they found on him and the paraphanalia. Or get out.
Billy - smart, funny, talented Billy, from a loving and supportive family -- became homeless this month.
“I want to stay sober. I’m trying to stay sober,” he said. “But there’s so much heroin here. It’s everywhere.”
Update: Since this story was reported, Billy's family has sent him to another rehab facility out of state.
Caeli wanted to visit her family so badly once, she promised her mother that she would clap her hands the entire time she was in the house - so they would know she was not stealing anything.
“But truthfully, I would steal with my feet if I could have,” said Caeli.
Caeli is Latin for “of the heavens” and it’s pronounced Chaley.
During the five years she was using heroin, Caeli would have done anything for the drug.
And she did.
“They say it’s a conscious decision to put the heroin in your arm. That’s true. But the addiction is so strong that it seems as if the addiction takes over and it’s forcing you to put the heroin there.”
Now 24, Caeli doesn’t understand what made her start in the first place. Growing up, her life was pretty great.
She had loving parents who were high school sweethearts, the family took vacations to the beach, they ate dinner together every night.
They live in an upscale neighborhood in Lancaster Township. Her parents are both professionals. She went to private school.
The only trauma Caeli can remember is her first memory -- of a baby brother being born and then dying two weeks later of kidney failure.
She doesn’t blame her addiction on that.
“I always had this feeling that I didn’t belong,” she recalled. “I was always an all-or-nothing kind of child, like if there was a wrinkle in my sock, it was over.
“One side of me was a bright, precocious shiny penny, while the other side was very unhappy. Drugs gave me a chance to get out of myself and find a level of perfection.”
At 18, Caeli had a friend who introduced her to crack. She became addicted and overdosed and went to a recovery house in Maryland.
Which didn’t work for her at all.
She continued using and living what she sees now as an extremely dangerous lifestyle.
“Once I started injecting heroin, there was no way to turn back. I went to 15 rehabs and recovery houses,” Caeli said.
“I did things in exchange for drugs that were horrible. I stole from my family. I stole my little brother’s video games.”
Caeli let friends grow and sell marijuana out of her apartment, and she now has a felony.
At the time there was no question it was all worth it.
“Heroin was amazing. It was like a fountain of warmth shooting out of the top of your head, covering you in a velvet blanket. It was like you were a better everything but it was also the most vile black hole.”
With heroin, the withdrawal is frightening and horrible. It’s what addicts fear every day.
The euphoric feeling heroin gives, plus the fear of withdrawal, keeps heroin users continuously searching for their next bag of drugs.
Caeli thinks there might be another reason.
“It’s hard to live with yourself after some of the dirt you’ve done. That is if you have a soul and you’re breathing.”
Getting high helped cover the shame.
But after relapsing so many times, Caeli had pretty much given up hope.
“I thought the end of addiction would be death. I think heroin is passive suicide.”
Luckily for her, she had to go to the hospital for other medical conditions associated with her heroin use -- liver failure and MRSA.
“I’m really grateful for Lancaster General. They treated me like a patient who deserves respect and they had empathy,” she said. “ Two male nurses, they were so professional. They spent time talking to me, and it gave me the feeling like there are people out there who will give me a chance.”
A counselor in the hospital suggested Methadone. It’s a treatment not everyone agrees with but it was finally the thing that got Caeli to stop using heroin.
“People think you get high from Methadone. You don’t. It just makes me feel like myself. The self before I did drugs.”
She hasn’t used heroin in over a year and she is repairing her relationships with her family. Nearly all the friends she did heroin with are dead or in jail, but she’s slowly building a new life with new friends.
And then there is her dog, Gremlin, whom she adopted from a local shelter.
“He was always there for me,” Caeli said. “I swear he would try to stop me from using and if I was using, he would become really protective over me. He’s a much more mellow dog now that I’m clean.”
One of the most important relationships Caeli is working on is the one with herself, she said.
“I’m not dating or anything. I have to just work on staying sober. And I’m slowly forgiving myself, a little bit at a time.”
Jonathan is a very punctual person. He turns up for lunch a few minutes late but he has already called to announce that.
And he’s considerate and he’s polite.
It’s easy to see he grew up with some manners.
Even though he tries to enjoy his lunch, he isn’t feeling well.
Jon is sick and he’s itchy.
Every once in a while his dirty fingernails scratch over his pale chest and shoulders looking for relief.
He says it feels just like he’s getting the worst flu, but it’s not the flu.
Jon needs heroin.
Jon, not his real name, 32, is surprisingly smart and articulate. He’s also a pretty hopeless heroin addict. It’s a drug he tried when he was a teenager, living in a suburban, middle-class development in Ephrata. It’s a drug he has no intention of quitting.
He said it’s been 12 hours since he shot up and heroin is calling him in the rude way it always does. Stomach cramps, nausea, sweating, body aches.
And it’s also tempting him with the promise of a glory he can barely remember but always seeks – that elusive high that came from the first dose, the first stick of the needle.
The urge is not too hard to answer this day. John panhandles for an hour and gets nearly $20. That’s way more than he needs for a bag of dope.
Soon enough he’s on his Happy Trail, a graffiti tagged area near a park, with his backpack of supplies.
Jon drops down on the grass, takes out his tin cigar box and “washes” the used needle with tap water. He empties white powder from a glassine envelope square into the bottle cap which has a bit of brown cotton in it, the size of a baby lightning bug.
Jon said the cotton is to siphon out any impurities in the drug. “What they cut it with,” he explains.
What he doesn’t explain is how he deals with the impurities in the needle. Except to say that this one is dull from use and he’s pretty sure he has Hepatitis C from sharing needles. He is not at all interested in being tested for AIDS.
“What’s the point?” he asks.
Jon doesn’t really want to quit heroin, even though he’s homeless, he has no money and no contact with his family. He hasn’t seen or spoken to his mom in five years.
And the truth is he can’t quit it. Unless he wants to go through the notorious excruciating, exhausting, subhuman experience known as heroin withdrawal.
The fear of withdrawal is there every day for heroin addicts. It gives them, like Jon, a pretty powerful motivation to stay high and a pretty twisted view on the drug they shoot up several times a day.
“I don’t shoot heroin to get high,” said Jon. “I shoot it to get well.”
And yet, Jon is not well at all. He’s so thin. He does not eat much or have a place to sleep because of his drug use.
Recently he was sleeping on a stone wall and three youths decided he was an easy target to harass and beat. He still has marks on his head and face from the punches.
When he shoots his heroin, it’s often difficult to find a vein. He puts the needle in his arm and fishes around again and again to hit one.
It’s a very difficult thing to witness.
He believes most of the veins in his arms are ruined from heroin use.
“They’re stiff, like rubber hoses,” he explains.
Lately he has been shooting heroin into the veins in his hands which are swollen and puncture-marked.
“I kind of want to stop,” said Jonathan. “And I kind of don’t want to. I don’t know how to have fun without drugs.”
Update: Since this story was reported, friends of Jonathan said he was arrested and taken to Lancaster County Prison following a fight with another man.
Many of us commit our lives to health, safety and security. We want to live in a warm, dry place. We hope for a comfortable retirement. Imagine the adventurous side of yourself approaching the edge of a canyon while admiring a beautiful vista. Now imagine yourself setting aside your inhibition and jumping from that precipice.
What is the meaning of that urge, that curiosity to jump? Why would anyone, even for a moment, feel compelled to disregard self-preservation?
I was conflicted as I followed addicts to take the photos for this project about heroin addiction. My responsibility as a photojournalist requires that I witness events. I interpret subject matter for others with as little personal bias or influence as possible.
On one particular day, I was following an addict I’ll call Jonathan to his next buy after he had collected enough money to buy a dose. He warned me when we were close to his supplier that I should stay back until he returned. This probably wasn’t a safe place for me.
He returned minutes later and we walked to an area concealed from view. He told me not to worry about people unless I saw someone in a uniform. I took in our surroundings, the community continuing around us. I thought about children – my children and family.
I continued to take photographs while Jonathan attempted to shoot the brown fluid into his arm. He missed a vein and stabbed himself again and again, but the needle separated from the syringe with a half-inch of the needle still protruding from his skin.
Swearing profusely, he extracted the needle, jammed it back into the syringe and began again with anxious desperation. He poked between the knuckles on his hand and bent the needle. More anger. His arm was a grotesque canvas brushed with splotches of blood.He looked for another entry point in his skin. Success - finally. Brutal. Revolting. He poured some water on his seeping wounds and gathered his things.
We walked for a while afterward and I wondered if he was high. Did it work? He paused. “No, no, no,” he said. “I don't get high. I get well.”
The irony of that statement summed up how I was seeing this process. Even though I separated myself from the assignment in the moment, the quiet reflection afterward brought distress.
I know addiction is a disease, but the concession made to enter this world is done willingly when one follows that urge to jump. And once you are addicted, you are consumed by a compulsion to live life in a cycle of self-destruction and increasingly dangerous tolerance.
These addicts are sons and daughters draining emotions and resources from families, friends and loved ones. These are people walking beside you in the crosswalk, at the grocery store, in school, at work, in town and in the suburbs. After the plunge, they need wings of recovery to glide safely home.
According to this addict – who had first jumped off his proverbial cliff more than 15 years ago – he is well.
But he is not healed. And without change, he will continue to fall.