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Originally published Wednesday, April 4, 2012 at 7:04 PM

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More suburban teens turning from pills to heroin, authorities say

Many new heroin addicts started as teens, abusing prescription painkillers they found in their homes.

McClatchy Newspapers

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Heroin, a drug most often associated with the gritty back alleys of big cities, is making a surprising surge in suburban, affluent places.

In Placer County, Calif., for example, over the fiscal year that ended in July 2011, 171 people, or nearly 14 percent of patients in the county's drug treatment clinics, said they were addicted to heroin, up from 8.5 percent the previous year.

Many of these new heroin addicts started as teens, abusing prescription painkillers they found in their homes, say law enforcement and public health officials.

The transition from getting high on mom's leftover meds to being a strung-out heroin addict is easier, faster and more common than parents might believe, say addiction experts, drug officers and recovering addicts.

Auburn, Calif., native Brandon Scott was 15 when he started using prescription meds, mostly OxyContin — a brand name of the opioid painkiller oxycodone. In a matter of months he went from enjoying the prolonged buzz of ingesting the pills to boosting the high by crushing the pills and smoking them.

Once addicted, and willing to do anything to keep the painful withdrawal symptoms at bay, it was a short leap to heroin, said Scott, who is now 19 and in recovery.

"I would have never guessed that I would be putting a needle in my vein to get high. I just thought I was trying to ease the pain," he said.

Law enforcement, addiction treatment providers and health officials say the spike in heroin use is alarming.

When Jeff Kool began his stint as a Roseville, Calif., police drug officer five years ago, methamphetamine was the scourge. Since then he's observed a spike in the use of OxyContin and other prescription drugs.

Now a surge in heroin.

"Heroin is off the hook right now," offered Kool.

Ryan Booth, 31, observed the same thing — from a user's perspective. He started with marijuana at 16; by 18 he was on to meth. Four years ago, he began abusing OxyContin, eventually finding his way to heroin.

"You start doing one thing and it leads to another," said Booth, who lives in an Auburn, Calif., transitional house. "I see all these young kids getting addicted to pills and then they move on to heroin. That is the epidemic these days."

The painkiller problem is particularly bad in the well-to-do suburbs where there is plenty of "prescribed heroin" to swipe from parents or grandparents, Kool said.

He said kids see it as a safe, clean drug since it came from a doctor, as opposed to street drugs such as meth or heroin.

Scott, who is trying to stay clean by speaking up and writing music about his problems, said the number of teens taking painkillers shocks him.

"I think people would be surprised how many kids are doing it. Honor roll kids. It's everywhere. Half the kids are doing it," he said. "It's because all these parents have cabinets full of it."

While many make the switch from painkillers to heroin because heroin is cheaper, others may have been unwittingly pushed in that direction after OxyContin's manufacturer, Connecticut-based Purdue Pharma, discontinued it in 2010, replacing it with MC Contin, a more tamper-resistant product, said Kool.

Because the new pills can't be crushed for smoking or liquefied for injecting, some abusers turned to heroin.

"It helped curb the OxyContin abuse, but so many of the kids were addicted they had to switch to other drugs," said Stenson.

Booth said it took him a while to realize he was addicted, but once addicted it took over his life.

"There was nothing else for me to do. The physical pain from opiate addiction is so strong," he said.

Drug clinic director Stenson described it as the flu times 10.

Granite Bay, Calif., parent Brad DeHaven, a frequent speaker about prescription drug addiction, said the video of his rail-thin son writhing in pain as he went though withdrawal symptoms is often the most powerful portion of his talk.

DeHaven, who wrote a book about his experience trying to get his son clean, said he missed the warning signs when his son began abusing painkillers prescribed when he broke his arm on a trampoline. DeHaven dismissed the symptoms as being a normal brooding teenager pulling back from his family.

He advises parents to secure their supply of painkillers and to properly dispose of unused drugs.

Kool said that in addition to being on the lookout for obvious signs, such as pipes or needles, parents need to watch for lesser-known signs: bits of foil crumpled up or lying about. The foil is used to burn the crushed painkillers, which leave a black stain.

Both Scott and Booth say their lives are on the right track now, but they are realistic that a relapse remains a persistent concern. Scott has had one relapse already.

"I'm clean now. (But) it's not something you can shake," he said. "I know what to do. But sometimes I mess up."

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