Chasing the Dragon: The Heroin Epidemic Hits St. Louis
Heroin's back, and the epidemic is hitting Kirkwood, Ballwin, Belleville, Maryland Heights, Chesterfield, and Sappington...
Illustrations by Shawn Murenbeeld
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Lexie reached for the perfume tray. It was rimmed in gold filigree just like the one she had when she was a little girl, but with a small pile of white powder on its mirrored surface. The cute guy holding the tray shook his head and passed it to the next person. “You’re on psych meds,” he reminded Lexie.*
The tray passed in front of her a second time.
The third time it came around, the guy, call him Joe, let her inhale a tiny line. He said the drug was called China White.
“If you do this drug for three days consecutively, you will be hooked, and if you use a great amount, you will die,” he warned her, shifting into the stilted, emotionless delivery that ends pharmaceutical commercials. She nodded and bent over the tray. Afterward she felt good, weird, foggy. When she got home, she took a shower and almost fell. She braced herself against the cool tile and felt absurdly, unaccountably happy.
Six months later, in June 2010, Lexie saw Joe again. She snorted for the second time, and the heroin was far more potent. She woke up surrounded by hard, chilled porcelain, water sloshing at her arms. Joe leaned close to her face. “We almost called an ambulance,” he told her, and he looked really worried. She smiled and slid back into peace.
After that evening, Lexie started dating Joe. She’d watch him shoot up, see the bliss instantly soften his face. She begged him to inject her. She was 23 and miserable, her diagnosis bipolar disorder, her mood a wild mix of restless and sad, bored and angry and why bother? Her mother, who worked at a university, kept telling her she had potential—for what? Finally, one night when Joe was out of money and desperate, he told her that if she bought the buttons ($10 capsules, a twentieth of a gram each), he’d shoot her up.
The rush came over her like a tide, washing away every worry she’d ever had. What followed was a sweet, soaring joy, the kind she’d always guessed was possible but she’d never, ever felt.
Hours passed, but she wasn’t bored. No angry thoughts slammed around inside her skull. She tested her thoughts tentatively—no anxiety came. Even the sadness deep in her gut was gone.
For the next two weeks, Lexie let Joe’s brother shoot her up whenever Joe couldn’t. Once every couple of days…every other day…every day. Her mother had always told her she was a born entrepreneur—when their new neighbor was waiting for his water to be turned on, she put up a stand in the yard and sold him gallon jugs. Now, she needed a lot of money. She advertised on the Internet as an “escort” (“‘Prostituting’ is a better word,” she’d say dryly), and her clients, mostly doctors and lawyers, posted stellar reviews. After a session, she’d go straight to Joe’s workplace so he could shoot her up in his workstation or the women’s bathroom.
When he complained that shooting her up was ruining his high, she learned to use the needle herself. When he lost his job, in February 2011, she slept with two or three men a day to buy heroin for both of them. Sometimes he even drove her to her “appointments.” He didn’t seem to mind, and she hated him for it.
“You lose all self-esteem,” she told me, months later. “You lose…clarity.”
Heroin used to be a subculture with its own wan, vacant, anorexic heroin-chic aesthetic. Now it’s so mainstream, it has no aesthetic at all. Lexie’s dealer “carried himself really well,” she says. “He went to Frontenac, had his clothes tailored, and just the way he talked…”
The current epidemic has a longer reach than the heroin upsurges in the 1970s and the early 1990s. Two reasons are purity (you can start out by snorting, so there’s none of the inner-city-junkie stigma that comes with the needle) and availability. Many dealers give the first button away, a diabolically brilliant marketing strategy. And today’s heroin hasn’t been “stepped on” so many times, buffered with fillers. “We are seeing, at the street level, 30 to 60 and sometimes 80 percent purity,” says James Shroba, acting special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s St. Louis Division. “When I started this work, a 3 percent level was a home run.”
Local law-enforcement authorities blame heroin for upticks in shoplifting, residential robberies, copper theft, prostitution, and homicide. Police in St. Louis city and county made more than 825 heroin-related arrests in 2011, and in September, the DEA collaborated with 32 other agencies on the largest single strike against heroin in St. Louis history, arresting 53 dealers and distributors.
The Barnes-Jewish Hospital emergency department saw 150 heroin overdoses in 2010 and nearly as many in 2011; its records show a fivefold increase in the past five years. Deaths have shot up, too: More than once, St. Louis County medical examiner Dr. Mary Case has walked into the morgue and found three or four heroin overdoses. This is worse than crack cocaine, she says, because “kids go off to college and get hooked. They’ll be out partying, and the price of heroin is like the price of a six-pack of beer. You don’t have that exposure to crack at a frat party.”
Crack-cocaine deaths peaked in St. Louis County in 2006, with a high of 54. Heroin deaths reached 90 in 2011. Heroin’s demographics are different, too; while those who died from crack cocaine are a mix of races and largely middle-aged, heroin’s victims skew younger, more white, and more male.
Dan Duncan, director of community services for the National Council on Alcoholism & Drug Abuse in St. Louis, says its help line first noticed an increase in heroin-related calls about four years ago, “and last year it went through the roof.”
In heroin’s patchwork geography, most of those calls came from West County and South County, yet an inordinate number of recent fatal overdoses have been in South City—and most street deals take place near Interstate 70, in North St. Louis neighborhoods littered with syringes. Nice SUVs with Illinois plates are parked along the curbs, and kids from West County and Jefferson County and Franklin County are pouring in, navigating the unfamiliar terrain with their phones and GPSes.
Paul slid off his mail carrier’s bag. He was sweaty and tired, but instead of heading home for a cool shower and dinner, he drove downtown to an ATM where he wouldn’t have to pay a fee, then got on I-70 north and veered right back off again at the Madison Street exit. He pulled out his phone and dialed his dealer, counted the rings, flipped his phone shut and waited, scanning the street: Was there a school nearby? That meant extra charges, if he got caught. He checked his rearview mirror—where the hell was his dealer?—and saw a couple of guys heading toward him. “Here I am showin’ up in a mailman outfit, this white guy in a black neighborhood,” he thought, and touched his handgun for reassurance. “And that’s bad, too,” he reminded himself, “because now I’m a mailman with a gun in a bad neighborhood with drugs on me.”
He couldn’t buy more than a day’s supply at a time, or he’d use it up too fast. Sometimes the cravings got so bad, he’d wake up in the middle of the night and have to use to get back to sleep. But he always had to make sure he had heroin for the next morning, because he wasn’t going to be able to work if he didn’t. And so far, he hadn’t missed work once.
This was a lot of trouble. But heroin—it was better than your best dream. Better than love. He couldn’t believe how good it felt, like a fairyland. Some days the word just played through his head a million times, and all he could think was “I want to do it I want to do it I want to do it.”
At first, he’d thought everybody in the world should use heroin, so they’d be mellow and loving. But now, he could feel himself changing. He lied all the time, had attitude with his mom and dad, fought over stupid stuff, couldn’t keep a girlfriend. He dreaded that drive every night. He’d start thinking about it while he walked his route. But by afternoon, he’d feel sweaty and sick and know he had to go.
He first tried heroin in the grunge ’90s, after Colombia introduced a higher grade that could be snorted. He never switched to shooting up, couldn’t imagine having to find clean syringes all the time. He could sprinkle his dope on a CD and snort it while he was driving down the highway.
He watched friends smoke heroin, putting it on a piece of foil, taking a Bic pen apart, holding the little tube an inch above the heroin and lighting a flame under the foil. The heroin sent up billowy, fantastical clouds of smoke that they followed with the pen tube, breathing it in. Chasing the dragon.
Shooting up was supposed to be the real high, though. People laughed at Paul for snorting, told him he was just wasting his time. He heard of people shooting straight into the jugular, or between their toes to hide the needle marks, or into hemorrhoids because their veins had collapsed…
No thanks. He’d snort. He bought his heroin raw when he could, mixing it with Dormin, an over-the-counter sleeping aid he could only find “in ghetto gas stations and Arab stores.” He’d seen the ends of capsules crunched because somebody had taken out a bit of heroin and replaced it with filler.
The list of substances that have been used to bulk up heroin is endless, from sugar to talc to fentanyl, lidocaine, laundry detergent, powdered milk, starch, brick dust, or Ajax cleaner. In toxicology reports, Case sees a lot of Benadryl, which, like Dormin, is diphenhydramine and makes people sleepy—so maybe they’ll think they’re getting more heroin than they are.
Some heroin comes as a fluffy white powder; other times it’s a tan or “Mexican brown” powder; sticky, sweet-smelling “black tar”; or “crete,” a chunky powder as gray as concrete mix. People used hand-held coffee grinders to mix it, and Paul often saw them so desperate for a few grains, they’d tear the whole grinder apart and scrape it out with a razor blade.
He quit—six times. He had a long clean stretch, but last spring, his friend John died of an overdose, and afterward, every time a car like his passed, Paul kept thinking it was John. Then he’d remember, the pain as sharp as new. Heroin was the only thing he knew that could take it away.
John’s mother had been addicted to prescription drugs, and John had hated feeling like he was following in her steps. “I’m not using to get high,” he’d promised his sister. “I’m just using to feel normal.” He lost his job as a social worker and started delivering pizzas. Then he lost that job, too. To get cash, he’d sometimes buy a thousand Dormin capsules and sell them to his dealer. (Other heroin users “smurf,” buying over-the-counter decongestants to sell to methamphetamine cooks.)
Finally, John got into a methadone program that seemed to be working. It was expensive, and the clinic was far away, but he was doing great.
Until he vanished for four days and was found in Florissant, miles from his South County home, dead of an overdose. Paul’s convinced a friend injected John with too strong of a dose and didn’t stick around to help. But nobody’s got time to investigate all the deaths like John’s.
Recently, another friend overdosed, and her dealer’s now wildly popular. “Three or four people have OD’d from this guy’s stuff,” Paul says. “People are droppin’ like flies. So there will be every car you can imagine over at that person’s house, because they know the stuff is good, and they figure the person just took too much.”
He falls silent. “For 15 years, you didn’t hear about it,” he says. “Now it’s on every corner.”
Natlie Burke started using just before her 17th birthday. Her mother, Stacey Burke, noticed her erratic behavior—she was willful, combative if she didn’t get her way, sleeping all the time, screaming even at her friends—but wrote it off as her being a teenager. Natalie was beautiful, had a lot of friends, made honor roll…
Two years went by before the truth surfaced, starting with an odd burst of temper when Stacey asked a friend of Natalie’s to drive with her to drop off Natalie’s car for repair. A few days later, Stacey read about a shooting, probably drug-related, in North City. Then she opened a red-light ticket for Natalie that photographed her at Goodfellow Boulevard and I-70. That afternoon, she turned on the TV and saw Oprah interviewing an entire family on heroin.
“I vomited and collapsed,” she says. “Then I called her father.”
Natalie’s father said, “No way.” Natalie’s friend’s father admitted that his son was on heroin but had promised him Natalie wasn’t. Natalie admitted the truth. (It turned out, she’d been upset about the car repair because her friend was supposed to go get her drugs, and she needed them right away.)
Stacey put Natalie into the hospital for a medicated detox. “She said she’d rather be dead than on heroin,” Stacey recalls. “She said she’d gone to a party, and she and her friend were looking for some ecstasy, and this guy told her he had something else she’d like.”
Natalie used again after the detox, then tried to detox herself using Benadryl, then went to a rehab center in Tennessee. “Mom, I’m in the same room Johnny Cash had,” she exclaimed, thrilled. Fifteen days later, she was kicked out for belligerent behavior. Two more years went by, two more rehab centers, a methadone clinic, a sober-living house. “She didn’t like living there because the people seemed more messed up than she was,” Stacey says. “In all reality, she was just as messed up as they were. She was just younger and prettier.”
This past fall, Natalie seemed to pull it together. She enrolled at Allied College and got a job selling Lancôme at Macy’s. One day, her mother came home with groceries and asked for help unloading. Natalie picked up a can of peanuts and said dreamily, “What’s this?” Stacey gave her a long look. “What does the box say, Natalie?” Stacey made an excuse and went to her bedroom, thinking, “What do I do? What do I do? What do I do?”
She came back out and said, “I think you’re high.” Natalie denied it, and the next day, she went to live with her father. Two weeks later, he called Stacey in a panic, saying Natalie told him she was going to a baby shower, but she was wearing sweats and hadn’t taken a bath in two days. He went into his bedroom and saw his drawer ajar, his pistol gone.
When Natalie finally answered her cell, she promised her father she wouldn’t pawn the pistol and told him she was just going to get high one more time and then come home. She went to the Lumière Place parking lot, shot up with heroin—her mother says police found three syringes—and shot herself with the pistol. The note next to her read, “I will never get better only worse. I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”
Her funeral was by invitation only. Two of Natalie’s friends had already taken fatal overdoses; others were still using, and Stacey didn’t want them there. “They use before the funeral,” she says, her voice flat, “and they use sometimes in the parking lot before they pull away from the funeral home.”