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Series on drugs from Northwest News Network.

Drug Cartels Thrive On Ultimate Consumers: Addicts

Drug traffickers are doing big business up and down the West Coast. When you go by freeway, you’re driving a Silk Road of sorts for heroin, meth and cocaine. This export industry is evolving. Drug experts say heroin is back on the rise, fueled in part by prescription drug abuse. This week, in a series we call Border to Border Drugs, we’re reporting on drug trafficking rings that rely on every freeway in the West. In part two of the series, correspondent Chris Lehman reports on how the supply side of this business may change, but the demand remains strong.

Heavy-duty prescription painkillers have something in common with heroin. They're both a type of drug called "opiates" and the effect they have on people who get hooked is similar. One difference? Heroin is usually cheaper and easier to get. That was true for Portlander Kevin Lehl. He says he got hooked as a teen when he was prescribed opiates to treat chronic pain.

Kevin Lehl: "I was in love with it from the very beginning."

Lehl says hunting for pills turned into a full-time obsession and he eventually made the switch to heroin. It was everywhere.

Kevin Lehl: "Once you're kind of like in this opiate world, you kind of know people that know people that know people."

Lehl says he's been clean since the beginning of the year. He's now taking community college classes in hopes of becoming a drug counselor. He's also found a new part of town to live in. There’s an old joke that there’s a coffee shop on every corner in Portland. For Lehl, heroin was actually more convenient to get than coffee.
Kevin Lehl: "In my old neighborhood, there's probably like seven people within a five block radius that sells heroin and pills."
But unlike the fiercely competitive coffee market, drug experts say heroin dealers don't really need to advertise.

Lee Hoffer: "They don't push their drug because this drug sells itself."

That's Lee Hoffer, an anthropologist who teaches at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. His specialty is the heroin market. And he studies it the old-fashioned way. He just walks up to drug dealers and starts asking questions.
Lee Hoffer: "Yeah, it's not much more beyond that."
Hoffer says drug dealers generally rely on word-of-mouth advertising. He says think of it this way: You move to a new town…
Lee Hoffer: "You're going to ask your friend, where's a good mechanic? Or what doctor do you use? This is how people find heroin dealers."

And after awhile, those dealers and other users become part of your social circle. That's what happened to Portland heroin user Linda Wickerham.

Linda Wickerham: "Everybody kind of watches out for each other because they know what it's like to be sick when you don't have your heroin. And so even if I have a little bit, I'll share it with my other two friends because I know what it's like being sick."

Wickerham didn't come to heroin through prescription painkillers. An acquaintance offered her a dose about four years ago.

Linda Wickerham: "I tried it once and have been on it ever since. I can't stop. It's hard."

I met her at a clinic run by Oregon Health and Science University that tries to help people addicted to opiates. Wickerham says she's come here about a half-dozen times in an effort to shake the habit. But it’s not going so well. I ask her when’s the last time she used.

Linda Wickerham: "Today. Today I used."

Wickerham says she'd really like to quit. But going without heroin has proved to be just too difficult.

Linda Wickerham: "If I don't use I'm going to be sick and that's a whole new different ballgame there. You can't even imagine what it's like when you don't have your heroin how sick you get."

And in a nutshell, that's why the business of selling heroin is so brisk. OHSU doctor Amanda Risser says addicts routinely tell her that trying to quit involves a willpower they just don't possess.

Amanda Risser: "The withdrawal syndrome is so awful and so, I mean when folks describe how they feel when they're in withdrawal, people really do feel like they're going to die."

But for many users, the withdrawal symptoms aren't the only thing standing in the way of quitting. They actually like the drug, says Caleb Banta-Green. He's a researcher at the University of Washington's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute.

Caleb Banta-Green: "People begin wanting heroin more than they care about food and drink and love and things like that.
And Banta-Green says dealers know how to tap into that addiction. Like any good salesperson, they offer discounts to keep their best customers happy.

Caleb Banta-Green: "The issue with heroin is that most people who use heroin use pretty regularly. They might use easily 20 days out of the month, so having a regular steady customer might be worth selling for a little bit less, because you're really working on getting repeated sales."

For Portland heroin user Linda Wickerham, the worst part about her addiction is the guilt she feels about allowing the drug to separate her from her family. She says she rarely sees her two daughters and her grandson because using heroin has thrown her life into chaos.

Linda Wickerham: "People say you must not want to be with them that bad because you're still doing heroin. But it's not like that. It's not that easy. But for me that is my rock bottom, not being with them every day. Because either I'm by myself or with my friends that do heroin. And that's not the kind of life I want."

But it's the kind of life heroin producers and dealers want her to have. Because Wickerham and countless other addicts are the ultimate consumers: The kind who can’t stop buying the product even when they don't want it anymore.

Our series Border To Border Drugs is a collaboration between Northwest public radio stations and Fronteras: The Changing America Desk.

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