Heroin use among teenagers is increasing at an alarming rate as experts say the drug, long considered to be prevalent only in urban areas, is infiltrating the suburbs.
All across suburban America, young people are getting hooked on a drug parents never suspected they needed to fear.
“Kids in the city know not to touch it, but the message never got out to the suburbs,” former Chicago Police Capt. John Roberts told NBC News.
Roberts’ 19-year-old son died of a heroin overdose after the family moved to Chicago’s suburbs. Roberts, newly retired from the police department, thought his children would be safer.
“We didn’t think it would ever be a problem out here,” he said.
National data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration shows that the number of teens dying from heroin abuse has skyrocketed. In 1999, 198 people between the ages of 15 and 24 died of a heroin overdose, compared to 510 deaths in 2009, the latest year data was taken.
More teens are seeking treatment for heroin abuse, too — the figure jumped from 4,414 to more than 21,000 (about 80 percent) between 1999 and 2009. Ninety percent of teen heroin addicts are white, according to the data.
According to NBC News, prescription painkillers are the link between suburban teens and heroin. Teens addicted to pills like Oxycodone can find the same high in heroin, which is cheaper, more intense and easier to buy.
Roberts says his son, Billy, first became addicted to prescription painkillers, but when he and his friends could no longer afford their habit, they turned to heroin, which they could buy for 1/10 of the price.
“It’s hard to talk about the heroin problem without talking about the prescription drug problem,” Rafael Lemaitre, of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy told NBC News.
Death from prescription drugs tripled between 2000 and 2008, according to national data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
NBC News reports that out of dozens of interviews with former heroin addicts, nearly all reported getting hooked the same way. They started with prescription drugs they purchased from friends, and when they became too addicted to afford the number of pills they needed to get high, they switched to cheaper heroin.
A March 2010 report by ABC News highlights efforts by drug traffickers in Mexico and Columbia to market heroin to suburban teens, by splashing popular logos, like Prada or Chevrolet, on the small drug packets.
Some dealers even give it away for free in the suburbs, then sell to the kids once they become hooked.
Mexico has seen a huge increase in heroin production to meet the demand — from 7 metric tons in 2002 to 50 metric tons in 2012, according to the National Drug Intelligence Center.
The supply ensures the drug makes it across the United States.
“Twenty years ago, half of the heroin addicts in treatment lived in two states — New York and California,” Dr. Joe Gay, director of Health Recovery Services in Ohio, told MSNBC. “[Now, in Ohio] we’re seeing it spread out of the cities, into the suburbs and into the rural areas.”