Heroin: What is the drug’s powerful draw and what is being done to stem the tide of addiction

When questioned about a rash of vehicle break-ins that plagued the city since the beginning of the year, Altoona police said suspect Richard Boggs told a detective that heroin drove him to smash out windows and steal what he could fit in his pockets and turn into cash.

A week ago today, city police responded to two suspected heroin overdoses. One person survived after Narcan was administered by EMS personnel. The other was not so fortunate.

“Heroin’s kind of come back,” said Altoona police Detective Sgt. Benjamin Jones, who heads up the department’s narcotics office. Not that Altoona and Blair County are alone; Jones noted it’s the case across the country. It’s not that heroin addiction ever went away, but within the past year, prescription drugs and heroin have become the most prevalent drugs on the streets of Blair County.

“This problem isn’t unique to Altoona,” Jones said.

There’s not time in the day or enough days in the week when it comes to going after drug dealers, and without the help of funding by Operation Our Town, police wouldn’t have the resources to work the cases that bring down the bigger drug operations.

Nor is it just a matter of enforcing drug laws. “People forget about the collateral damage it does,” Jones said. “It tears families apart.”

“With heroin, you see other crimes rise,” added Altoona police Cpl. Christopher Moser, the department’s only other full-time narcotics officer. Burglaries, robberies and thefts increase as addicts struggle to keep up with the escalating cost of their habit.

At the peak of his heroin addiction, John – not his real name – was injecting up to 10 bags of heroin a day, at a cost of $20 to $25 a bag. Even then, it was at a discount since he was selling heroin to support his habit. At that time, if he had not sold the drug, John would have been paying the $40 to $45 tab that a bag of heroin cost in the early part of the 2000s, when the drug took the area by storm.

“Of course I didn’t make any money,” John, 32, said. “I would inject my profits immediately then sell what I had left to get more.”

Clean now for nine years, the stigma of heroin addiction is so strong that former users like John are hesitant to talk about their experience with heroin using their real names.

John’s addiction started with painkillers and ultimately progressed to heroin. He said as he got deeper into his addiction, he rationalized the things he would do to get the money to buy the drug, such as lying and stealing from family and friends and, ultimately, strangers.

“It starts eating up all your money,” John said. “Your mind starts playing tricks on you, and you start rationalizing things, justifying things.”

Soon, whatever moral compass you have is overpowered, he said.

Jennifer, who in June will have been clean for seven years, said it’s still something she struggles with daily. The 34-year-old said she didn’t know the hold heroin would have over her when she first started using it when she was about 20 years old. For two years, she snorted heroin everyday.

It wasn’t until her constant supply – her boyfriend was a dealer – dried up that she went through her first withdrawal.

“It was a real eye-opener for me,” Jennifer said.

So was state prison, which is where her addiction landed her after a string of arrests. In 2004, in a span of three months, Jennifer racked up 24 misdemeanors and three felonies for an array of crimes, including stealing checkbooks, shoplifting and selling a confidential informant a bag of heroin. She was in and out of county jail before a probation violation sent her to the State Correctional Institution at Muncy for a year and a half.

At the height of Jennifer’s addiction, she was using 10 to 20 bags of heroin a day at about $40 a pop.

After state prison, court-ordered treatment put her in Harrisburg, and although she had a few slip-ups in those first few months, she was free. A new baby and a new attitude led to recovery.

Jennifer said she wishes she could shake people she knows who are still living the life of an addict.

Judy Rosser, executive director of Blair County Drug & Alcohol Partnership, pointed out that at the moment, heroin is the drug of choice for people seeking treatment in Blair County.

Rosser said heroin addiction and addiction to other opiates, such as prescription painkillers, go hand in hand, with users bouncing back and forth between the drugs based on their availability. As heroin gets cheaper and easier to get, users turn to it. And with addiction comes risks, primarily overdoses, that make getting treatment for addicts imperative.

“We want to make sure they get help,” Rosser said, noting there’s a number of services available to treat opiate addiction, including medicated assisted programs that use methadone and Suboxone, half-way houses and counseling.

None are stand-alone tools to fix the problem, Rosser said, but in Blair County, people with substance abuse problems of all sorts, including alcohol, tend to seek treatment at a higher rate than other parts of the country. With about 10 percent of people in any community facing addiction problems, Blair County sees 25 percent of that population seeking treatment compared to about 10 percent nationally, Rosser said.

“People are trying to get help, and that’s a good thing,” Rosser said, noting that 2,400 people seek help through the partnership and state-funded medical assistance each year in Blair County.

Mirror Staff Writer Greg Bock is at 946-7458.