Heroin: Cheap, plentiful, deadly
The stranger reflected in the mirror and the pain coursing through her body were more than Ashley Potts could bear. At 20, her heroin addiction was three years old.
“I didn't think I would live past my 21st birthday,” said Potts, 28, a case manager in the Washington Drug & Alcohol Commission's Restrictive Treatment Program. “I wanted to die. You realize you don't have much to live for when you're a slave to a chemical.”
She took her first drink at 9. She popped a narcotic painkiller prescribed to a family member at 13. Cocaine called a year later. Expelled from school, Potts snorted heroin twice before injecting the drug at 17.
“My addiction basically just went deeper and deeper and deeper,” Potts said. “But I am proof that people do recover.”
High-profile heroin deaths this month, such as actor Philip Seymour Hoffman's overdose and those linked to the painkiller fentanyl, highlight what police and treatment specialists consider an epidemic. Western Pennsylvania has more heroin and more addicts than ever, they say.
“It used to be, if you arrested someone with 100 stamp bags, that would be a big arrest,” Pittsburgh narcotics squad Lt. Robert Roth said. “Now a 20-brick arrest is nothing,” he said referring to the packages of 50 single-dose bags that dealers transport for sales.
“When you can go to a McDonald's drive-thru window and buy a fix of heroin, what does that say?” asked Washington County Coroner Tim Warco, citing the arrest last month of a woman accused of selling the drug in Happy Meals from an East Liberty restaurant.
Pure, white heroin became popular with a younger, suburban demographic in Western Pennsylvania more than a decade ago. As addiction levels surge, fueled by prescription pill abuse, dealers supplied by Mexican drug cartels push more powder in suburban communities, officials say.
“We're the meeting point,” said Monroeville police Chief Doug Cole, who said highways that crisscross his community provide a place for dealers from Pittsburgh to meet buyers from Westmoreland and Indiana counties. “We have the hotels, the parking lots, places where people can arrange to meet.”
Users still trek to city neighborhoods in the East End and North Side, where single-dose stamp bags sell for about $8, Roth said. Dealers fed by supply chains from Detroit, Philadelphia or New York/North Jersey guide buyers through a series of phone calls, leading them to different locations in an attempt to elude police.
Going to market
Some dealers bring heroin directly to the market, setting up shop where they can charge more and possibly peddle a more pure product.
“There's always someone coming up here. They find an addict and sell from that house ... for a week to 10 days, then they move, which makes it harder for us,” Indiana County Chief Detective David Rostis said about dealers from Pittsburgh. Rostis, who leads the county drug task force, said stamp bags sell for $15 there.
Westmoreland County Detective Tony Marcocci said police use traffic stops along Routes 22, 30 and 28 to stop dealers who are bringing heroin to the county and to Kittanning.
In Butler County, some dealers cut out the Pittsburgh middle man, said Chief Detective Tim Fennell, head of that county's task force: “We have a Philadelphia connection getting it right to the county now.”
Such shifting patterns make sense to Jonathan Duecker, special agent in charge of the state Attorney General's Bureau of Narcotics Investigation.
He said users increasingly want heroin that is purer, that hasn't been “stepped on” by dealers who mix powders or drugs into it. Young, white users whom dealers seek to cultivate don't want to risk a trip to the city, and they want heroin pure enough to smoke or snort instead of injecting, Duecker said. They look for particular brands stamped onto bags that often correlate to purity.
“If it's coming through Pittsburgh, it will get stepped on again,” he said. “Philadelphia always had the purest, cheapest heroin in the country because of its proximity to New York City and that intermodal connectivity.”
Making the cut
Some heroin heading into Pennsylvania is packaged in stamp bags, said Gary Davis, assistant special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Pittsburgh office. The rest arrives in pure kilogram packages that sell for $80,000 in Philadelphia to $175,000 in Erie, Duecker said.
Midlevel dealers cut substances into the heroin to increase its high and attract customers, Davis said.
“They get a reputation. These addicts are looking for something powerful,” he said. “But you have no idea what they're cutting in it. It could be rat poison. It could be fentanyl.”
Duecker suspects someone local mixed so much fentanyl into packets branded “Theraflu” and “Bud Ice” that it killed two dozen Western Pennsylvanians. Distribution patterns rule out connections to similar fentanyl overdoses in other states, he said.
“The Mexicans don't step on their dope,” he noted of the cartels.
Police would not discuss their fentanyl investigations.
At the height of the deaths, police uncovered a packaging operation in Homestead where there were “Bud Ice” stamp bags and a coffee grinder with fentanyl powder.
“It looks like the operation was getting the raw heroin and cutting it up there,” said Homestead police Chief Jeffrey Desimone, who noted his officers often arrest people from Greene, Westmoreland and Washington counties who have traveled to the Mon Valley to buy heroin.
Potts, who grew up in Armstrong County, said she used to drive to Pittsburgh or its suburbs to buy heroin.
“You can find heroin in the richest neighborhoods with the nicest houses,” she said.
“You don't have to go to the ghetto to get heroin.”
Nearly everyone involved in addiction treatment and law enforcement cites a connection between increased heroin use and prescription pill abuse. Doctors prescribe opioid painkillers such as OxyContin. Patients get hooked, or those close to the patient take the pills and get hooked.
And when the supply runs out or addicts can't afford $80 for a pill, they turn to $8 hits of heroin.
“It's such a horrible epidemic — way more serious than anything before,” said Dirk Matson, director of human services for Westmoreland County and co-chair of a drug overdose task force.
The task force is studying fatal drug overdoses, which numbered 100 in that county from January 2012 through March 2013, to find trends, including how many victims had undergone treatment and how many had health issues that required prescriptions.
In 1999, about 4 percent of admissions at Greenbriar Treatment Center's 10 locations involved addiction to opiates. By 2012, that number was 56 percent. Clinical training specialist Christopher Cook of New Castle expects final numbers for 2013 to eclipse 70 percent.
“It's gotten to a point where we don't even need to see their records,” he said. “We just can ask where they are from, and we'll know it's for opiates.”
Staff writer Richard Gazarik contributed to this report. David Conti and Jason Cato are Trib Total Media staff writers. Reach Conti at 412-388-5802 or email@example.com. Reach Cato at 412-320-7936 or firstname.lastname@example.org.