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Shattering a stigma, York County suburbs are home to the new heroin
This generation's heroin addicts are the smiling kids in the neat rows of pictures on the fireplace mantels of middle America.
They're the kind of kids who got good grades, played soccer and wore the cool jeans.
They weren't the kind of kids who stuck needles in their arms until addiction took root in the careless medicine cabinets of the suburbs, where prescription pills are fueling a heroin boom that's redefining the face of dependency on the street drug.
Reality set in for Southwestern Regional Police Chief Gregory Bean as he sat in tidy, middle-class living rooms in suburban York County, conducting interviews about the armed robbery at Papertown Dairy Bar in Spring Grove, back in 2012.
The 20-year-old young woman who led the robbery — where her sister was working a shift at the time — came from a well-kept suburban home and attentive parents, he said.
"I guess it surprised me in that it wasn't my old definition of a heroin user," Bean said. "They were people who held jobs, were in college or had been reputable students in their high school."
When the chief was first exposed to heroin in the early '80s, it was "sort of the end-of-the-road drug" taken by hard-core big-city drug addicts who moved to it after using numerous other drugs, he said.
"It just was surprising that heroin found a way into mainstream suburbia," he said.
'Shame about it': Rural and suburban departments across York County are reporting the same scenario. Even Delta, the tiny rural border town, has a big enough problem that concerned residents volunteered to take police around and point out all of the heroin houses.
While the problem is widespread, a stigma about the type of person who uses heroin has hampered discussion for family members, who keep addictions secret to protect their loved one's reputation.
"At the very first hearing of the word heroin, there is that shame about it," said Angela Lyle of Wrightsville, whose outgoing and artistic 28-year-old sister Leigh Baxter died of an overdose in 2012. "You have that judgmental attitude that that's not something my family would be involved with."
People think of heroin and they think "bums on the street," unemployed and low-income people from big cities, she said.
"We came from a good family, lots of love," she said. "It happens to the cheerleaders and the jocks and the valedictorians. It's in your backyard ... there's not just this one cookie cutter of what an addict is."
Charlene Sciarretta of New Freedom said she didn't talk about her son Danny's addiction until after he died of an overdose in 2004.
"We wanted to give him a chance," she said. "People see addicts as moral failures ... and we didn't want people looking at Danny that way."
He came from an upper-middle class family, got good grades and had a lot of friends at York Catholic High School, and he was taking classes at Penn State York, she said.
"He just made a terrible mistake and couldn't step out of it," she said. "If you Google Danny and you see his face, you won't see the face of an addict."
How they look: Heroin-related deaths in York County in 2014 were generally people in their 20s to 40s. Most were white, and they were generally from middle-income families, said Coroner Pam Gay.
About 60 percent of the fatalities occurred in the suburbs, and there were slightly more men than women.
York County court defendants with heroin addictions also range in age from about 20 to 40, said York County District Attorney Tom Kearney.
Many of them started with addictions to prescription pain medications but escalated to heroin when they couldn't get a prescription and the pills sold on the street were too expensive.
The York street price for OxyContin is about $1 per milligram, so about $50 for a 50-milligram pill, he said. That compares to about $5 to $10 for a bag of heroin, he said.
On the streets, Officer Bryn Lindenmuth from Bean's department sees prescription and heroin abuse becoming about as widespread now as marijuana.
Users come from all walks of life, and he encounters them when their addictions inevitably lead to secondary crimes such as driving under the influence and theft.
Eventually, it ruins lives.
Such was the case of a young adult who blew a full scholarship to a state university, using heroin and selling it to sustain his addiction. Now he's unemployed, in his early 20s, Lindenmuth said.
How this happened: Back in the 1980s, heroin was used mostly in larger cities among chronic drug users, but cocaine was more prominent among youthful experimenters because it could be snorted, avoiding the stigma of the needle, said David Fialko, a prevention specialist with the Council of Southeast Pennsylvania of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Inc.
Heroin was only about 5 percent pure and needed to be injected for the euphoric effect.
But in the 1990s, youth started moving away from cocaine and started to abuse prescription drugs, including pain pills and the attention deficit hyperactivity disorder drugs Ritalin and Adderall, he said.
The "perceived level of harm" from abuse of prescription pills was lower, he said. Kids who would have never used an illegal street drug like pot or cocaine will reach into their parents' bountiful medicine stashes because those drugs were prescribed by a doctor, Fialko said.
"There are plenty of soccer moms who are addicted to benzodiazepines or opioid analgesics ... Xanax ..." he said. "It's prescribed, so it's 'not a problem.' They're successful people who go about their lives and everything is fine, but if you took that drug away, you would have some problems."
Take that drug away, and those "normal" people start experimenting with replacements to sate their craving.
Soccer moms and football stars might be unlikely to "go straight for the needle," as they would have had to in decades past, but today's heroin is now so pure that it can be snorted and smoked, he said.
Absent the stigma of the needle, people become addicted through means they mistakenly consider innocuous, Fialko said.
The first time they experience the drug through any method, they'll feel the full force of a euphoric and powerful high that the brain will never forget, he said.
"And that's where it starts."
— Reach Christina Kauffman at firstname.lastname@example.org.