Suburban Fix: Heroin's ugly resurgence - Tucson News Now

Suburban Fix: Heroin's ugly resurgence

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) -

Heroin, to most people, is a dirty, inner-city drug only affecting the down and out: the addicts, the criminals, the desperate and the weak.

For 40 years, that was largely  the case across the United States.

But today, "I don't think it's that hard to get them (hard drugs)," says Haley Haynes, a 16 year old junior from Pusch Ridge Christian Academy in Oro Valley. 

In many cases, it's black tar heroin being mainlined into some of our nicest communities.

"I've even heard of some kids in middle school using stuff like this," Haynes says, declining to mention heroin specifically. "But that wouldn't surprise me."

In recent years, students from virtually every high school in southern Arizona have overdosed on heroin.

With Canyon Del Oro High School becoming the local face of the epidemic when three students died from the drug during the 2009 school year.

"The people that are dealing know that we have the money in the suburban areas," says Janice Harris, a local mother who's all too familiar with drug use in our schools.  "CDO, Foothills, Catalina Foothills, this area."

Harris speaks from experience.

About a decade ago, her 13 year old son became addicted to oxycontin, due to its constant availability at friends' homes, even in school.

The prescription painkiller is classified as an opiate, the same narcotic found in heroin.

Once the problem was confronted, Harris thought her son's addiction was behind them.

It was only the beginning.

"My son started heroin when he was 15," she says.

Black tar heroin hand delivered, she says, in many cases to her son at school.

"He pretty much moved out of my house; he was living in the wash, in and out of jail, in and out of prison. I just knew it was a matter of time before he would overdose," she says.

Turns out, this local mother wasn't alone.

Parents across the region started seeing their children spiral into addiction.

Hard statistics about opiate use are difficult to quantify because so many cases aren't fatal.

But what we've learned through multiple inquiries to local and state health officials is that more people are, in fact, dying because of it.

Looking at poisons commonly listed on Arizona death certificates over the last five years, heroin deaths jumped from 56 cases in 2007 to 120 cases in 2011; oxycodone from 119 cases in 2007 to 175 deaths five years later.

Statewide, heroin and oxycodone accounted for 25 percent of all overdose deaths in 2011.

Pima County is no exception.

"I get an alert every time there's an opiate overdose," Harris says.  "Last year there were 369 opiate overdoses. Of that, I believe there were six teens that passed away last year."

"One is too many. One victim of anything like that is too many."

Kara Riley is a Lieutenant With Oro Valley Police Department, the same agency that responded to that tragic string of deaths of CDO students four years ago.

"The kids were getting the prescription drugs from their parents, their grandparents," Riley says.  "What they were finding is, once they weren't available -- and always used up -- they went to heroin."

Since then, Oro Valley Police Department has been especially mindful of drugs in schools and of prescription drugs at home.

So much, the agency created the first dispose-a-med program anywhere in the state, where people can drop off their prescription medications twice a month, no questions asked, thus eliminating so many gateway drugs that often lead to heroin addiction.

"We tried to address it head on," Riley says.  "We're asking the right people to help us provide the resources we need to stop these kids from dying."

To that end, heroin cases and all drug cases in Oro Valley -- have been nearly cut in half over the last five years.

That in itself is a huge success for the community.

As for personal success, "Through it, I started a foundation to help other parents with addiction."

Janice Harris wears a bracelet that defines her life and her son's, who's now been drug free more than a year.

"Only those who overcome -- that's our statement," the bracelet reads.

Together they created a book and an online resource called "There's No Hero in Heroin."

The guide walks parents through the darkness of addiction and provides hope to those who need it most.

"We've sent a rough estimate of about 40 teens to rehab," Harris says.

More than anything else, Harris wants people to know help is available.

And in many cases, it's even free.

But getting to this point-- and admitting it -- is the hardest step.

Change won't happen overnight, Harris says.

But it can happen.

Her story is living proof.

"There is no answer, there's no easy answer," she says.  "It's one step at a time, one day at a time, just like an addict in recovery."

Local Poison Control officials confirm heroin exposure cases in our community have steadily risen over the last five years.

As we've seen in Oro Valley, the issue is definitely on the radar of a lot of people.

So much, school resource officers are talking to kids as young as fifth grade about the dangers of drugs.

And the likelihood they'll be exposed to them, in many cases, even before high school.

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