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Columbus-Area Teens Use Black Tar Heroin

Many people move to the suburbs for bigger yards, better schools and less crime. But neighborhood developments are not immune to what is often thought as an inner-city problem: heroin. WOSU talks with one family whose teenage daughter is recovering from a heroin addiction. This summer, Nicole’s secret finally was blown. After years of successfully hiding her drug use from her family the 17-year-old began her journey into recovery, but it was not without struggles and an overdose that almost took her life. WOSU met with Nicole at a coffee shop, and we’re only using her first name. Nicole recalls the first time she experimented with drugs. “I was bored with my friends and we were talking and people were smoking weed and drinking and partying. And I decided I was going to go try doing that kind of partying. It started off maybe a couple of times a week but it quickly moved to every single day. I tried everything. And I stuck with opiates like Oxycontin, Percocets," Nicole said. Nicole was a ninth grader then. By the end of her junior year she had a full-blown heroin addiction. She used mostly black tar heroin. She and her family, by most standards, live a middle class life in a small, suburban Columbus community. We’ll get back to Nicole’s story in a moment. But first what is black tar heroin? Unlike white power heroin, black tar is a cheap, gooey, unrefined heroin. It looks like roofing tar. Lieutenant Shawn Bain heads up the Drug Task Force for the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office. He said black tar heroin is sold in tiny balloons for as little as $5 and $10 a piece. It’s a miniscule amount, about the size of a pinky fingernail. It’s not sold in inner-city, dilapidated houses like the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s. Instead, Bain said, the deals are made in big box store parking lots or in nearby neighborhoods. “These people are basically pizza delivery people, but selling heroin. So they’re willing to go out and meet you and give you free balloons for you to bring customers to them. It’s very good marketing," he said. Lieutenant Bain said most black tar heroin sold in Columbus comes from Mexico. And he says there is plenty of it. “We’ll see crack cocaine or powder cocaine leave the area for a while. We don’t see that with heroin. It seems to be a steady supply throughout the year," Bain said. WOSU spoke with a former heroin dealer and recovering addict. Ten months clean, she is now an informant for the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office. She says heroin is a thriving, lucrative business. We’re not using her name, and we’ve disguised her voice. “In the last five years it’s just doubled or even tripled. I mean it’s just like everyone wants to get in the game, and it’s mostly young people. There’s all this money to be made at least a couple hundred a day. And that’s doing nothing. You think about a month’s time, and that’s a drop in the bucket," she said. Paul Coleman, who directs the drug rehab center Maryhaven, said almost half of their adolescent patients use opiates such as prescription pain pills or heroin. And more than half of those teens come from suburban zip codes. “I think the use of opiates, particularly heroin, among young people in the last two or so years is one of the most shocking things I’ve seen...One patient at Maryhaven told me it is as easy to get heroin in our community as it is to get a six pack of beer," Coleman said. Now back to Nicole’s story. She bought black tar heroin in department store parking lots and just down the street from her school. “Black tar is probably what I used like 95 percent of the time. I’ve tried using the powder, China White, and that was harder to get. Not as easy to find. And the black tar, I think, is cheaper. Like you can get as much as you want and you can afford it. Even without a job," Nicole said. Nicole’s mom, Sue, said she never suspected her daughter was using heroin. A beer at a party? Sure. Maybe a drag off of a joint? Possibly. Never heroin. Then Nicole ran away in June. She was gone for almost three days. The sheriff’s office found her. “The first thing he told me was that’s not your daughter in the back of my car. And when I went to get her out of the backseat of his cruiser, trust me it was not my daughter. She was, it sounds crazy to say she was like the devil, but I mean it was just not my kid," Sue recalled. Nicole entered a six-week rehab program and was prescribed Saboxone to wean her off the heroin. But she relapsed and ran away again. This time, Nicole ended up with people she did not know, and she almost did not make it home. “We went and got some heroin. And within like 20 minutes I overdosed from it," she said. Paramedics resuscitated Nicole. She recovered, but she served time in juvenile detention and then house arrest. If she violates her probation she could go to a youth jail until she’s 21. She has been sober almost four months. “I think the real test will come whenever I’m 18 and able to do whatever I want to do. And my decisions will affect me and it’s not something that can be put off my record. I think the longer I stay clean now the easier it’ll get," she said.