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Heroin: SCV Faces the problem

Posted: January 8, 2012 1:30 a.m.
Updated: January 8, 2012 1:30 a.m.
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Editor’s note: This is the first article of a four-part series on the heroin problem that is gripping the Santa Clarita Valley. Subsequent articles will appear on the next three Sundays in January.

It is probably the toughest problem the Santa Clarita Valley has had to deal with in many years. It’s a big issue because it has the potential to cause great harm to younger people in the community. The problem: heroin.

A hidden problem that families and addiction specialists have been grappling with for several years, the use of heroin, largely by teens and 20-somethings, was brought to light last year. City of Santa Clarita officials and the local Sheriff’s Station began  a public awareness and education campaign that they said was necessary to help stop the heroin deaths throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.

In 2011, six people in the SCV died from heroin overdoses, Capt. Paul Becker of the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station said.


When Becker took over as the station’s captain in March 2010, he realized that this was a big problem that needed to be addressed, he said.


“I sent several deputies who were proactive in the field on a mission to arrest anyone selling or using illicit narcotics,” he said. “The significant number of arrests spelled out problems with heroin, Oxycontin, other prescription medications and amphetamines.”


   Becker’s team and city leaders have pressed forward aggressively in dealing with the problem, but the situation is exacerbated by the widespread availability of heroin in the Los Angeles area.


In fact, Los Angeles has become a major distribution center and transshipment point for heroin traffickers, said Jeffrey Scott, spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration.


Specifically, officials have identified the Sylmar area as the last stop for heroin before it makes its way into the Santa Clarita Valley, Sheriff’s Station Drug Unit detective William Velek said.


“We’re out in that area a lot,” he said.


Sylmar, just south of the Santa Clarita Valley, is very convenient for local heroin users, Velek said.


“Our users use their dealers because of ease of access,” he said.


In Sylmar, heroin dealers can sell drugs right off freeway off-ramps, at gas stations, or in fast food restaurant parking lots, Velek said.


“This stuff happens right under people’s noses,” he said.


Velek and his team spend a fair amount of time outside of the Santa Clarita Valley during the course of their investigations.
“I’ve followed users into Hollywood and into downtown Los Angeles, but it’s more common for us to go into Sylmar, Simi Valley and Palmdale,” Velek said.


Readily available
Heroin remains widely available in many U.S. drug markets and its increasing accessibility in some markets is due to its across-the-board purity and low prices, Scott said.


The increase in availability can be attributed to some degree to the increase in heroin production in Mexico, officials said.
“Mexican black tar heroin is by far the most prevalent type of heroin found anywhere west of the Mississippi and in California,” Scott said.


The prevalence of heroin might be due to, in part,  how it looks, Velek said.


“Most people wouldn’t recognize it when they see it,” Velek said. “It’s easy to transport.”


The increasing availability of high purity heroin that can be snorted, sniffed or smoked instead of being injected with a syringe and needle may also account for its popularity.


“There’s a perspective that it’s more socially acceptable to smoke heroin instead of having to use all ‘the works,’” Scott said. “It’s perceived as upper class, and might seem more acceptable to smoke than inject.”


Heroin is easier to get than the opiate-based drugs that heroin users commonly abuse before working their way into a full-blown heroin habit.


“You don’t need a prescription to get heroin,” Velek said. “Young users get addicted to opiate-based pills — they do that first and find it easier and cheaper to use heroin. The heroin is easier to get,” he said. “You can’t get opiates without a prescription.”


The 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that the average age of the first-time heroin user is 21, something that rings true in Velek’s experience, he said.


“They’re usually around 21,” he said. “We’re finding that most users develop the habit from smoking with a friend or relative, such as an older brother.”


But the use of heroin today is very different than the use of it in the past, officials said. Today’s heroin is far more pure — and therefore far more dangerous — than the heroin of 30 or 40 years ago.


City stance
Residents and officials of the city of Santa Clarita take pride in the area as a great place to live, away from many of the problems of the big city. That’s what makes the heroin problem much more magnified here, officials said. But Santa Clarita Mayor Laurie Ender said city leaders have taken a proactive stance.


 “Santa Clarita is one of the best communities in America to live, work and raise a family,” she said. “Like all great communities, we are not immune to the challenges cities face, including drugs and crime. But what makes our city strong is we are willing to put these issues up front, we address them head-on, we educate the community about the issues.”


In August, the city launched a comprehensive outreach program, Heroin Kills, with the goal of raising awareness among residents. The campaign began with the Heroin Kills symposium, featuring doctors, recovery professionals and recovering addicts.


The city also established a web site, heroinkills.org, containing links to treatment, counseling and other information.


“We wanted to create an environment where people are educated about drugs, understand the warning signs of use and have access to help,” Ender said. “In addition to this, we want to provide ample opportunity for our youth to occupy their time, whether it’s team sports, volunteering or getting out and enjoying parks, trails and family, the things drug abuse takes away from their life.”


Also, with funding support from the city, the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station formed the Juvenile Intervention Team, which hinges on a three-pronged approach: enforcement, intervention and education, Becker said.


“We’ve been running fast and furious on the enforcement component to get ahead of the problem,” he said. “We are satisfied, a year and a half later, that we have significantly stemmed the flow of narcotic use and sales in the valley and are now ahead of the problem.”


Deputies will continue focusing on all three components, with a particular focus on education in 2012, Becker said.
“We have teamed with William S. Hart School District officials and the city of Santa Clarita to develop a program to better educate students about the dangers of illicit narcotics use and where it leads,” he said.
Zero tolerance


Santa Clarita is one of the first communities to “pull its head out of the sand and deal with the heroin problem,” said City Councilman Frank Ferry.


“No one wants to admit that an affluent community with high academic standards, a city in the top-10 safest communities in the U.S., a place where a lot of parents are well-educated and high achievers, has this problem,” he said. “You go into denial as a community. The reality is that affluence and our kids’ ability makes our community a desirable place for drug dealers to sell.”


Local law enforcement has been pivotal in the city’s efforts to fight heroin.


“The city is working closely with the Sheriff’s Department to monitor trends in our community and schools, and to quickly apprehend and prosecute those who are providing drugs in the community,” Ender said. “Our message is zero tolerance.”
Still, efforts to eradicate heroin from the Santa Clarita Valley have been a topic of conversation among drug sellers, said a drug detective on Velek’s team who wished to remain anonymous.


“We’ve had suspects tell us that they’ve heard of us and how hard we’ve made it for them,” the detective said.
“The common thing we hear is ‘Wow. It’s really hard to get heroin there,”’ he said. “We like that.”


Parents can be as much a deterrent as law enforcement when it comes to keeping their children away from drugs, Velek said.


“Parents have to be responsible and know what their kids are doing,” he said. “Parents don’t need a search warrant to search their kid’s room.”


The latest heroin-related death to affect the community occurred Sept. 22, when Michael Harker, 22, Canyon High School graduate and member of the 2006 state championship football team, died of a heroin overdose in Las Vegas.


Harker had relapsed into drug use after a year of sobriety, family members have said.


Illegal drugs are an uncommon find at local high schools, but students have been arrested for bringing them, deputy Dave Chellis said.


“Mostly, it’s ‘wax’ — concentrated marijuana,” he said. “There’s been a lot of that.”


But heroin is the big killer.


“If there’s one things I want our families to hear, it’s that heroin is not a casual drug,” Ferry said. “It’s here in Santa Clarita and it’s deadly. The drug will rob you of your life.”


Next Sunday: “Getting hooked.”

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