Black tar heroin use on the rise in Fort Mill, Tega Cay

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comSeptember 15, 2012 

— First, it was prescription pills.

Now, Fort Mill teens and young adults with “disposable income” are turning to more hardcore drugs to satisfy their substance abuse cravings, federal and local drug enforcement officials say.

Heroin – an addictive opiate manufactured in white, brown and black powders or in pills – is at the top of their list.

Police say an influx of heroin into Charlotte has trickled south into Fort Mill and Tega Cay.

Heroin is cheaper than prescription medication, so it is easier for the same teens, young adults and dealers who were taking and selling pills three years ago to get a hold of black tar heroin.

Black tar is a dark, sticky, tacky and deadly type of street heroin that gives its user an immediate rush before they suffer a crash.

Derived from Mexican poppy plants, it was brought to Charlotte by Hispanic drug trafficking organizations that have turned York County’s northern neighbor into a “hub” for the illicit drug trade, said Walter Beck, Fort Mill commander for the York County Multijurisdictional Drug Enforcement Unit.

York County is so close to Charlotte that the product easily crosses the state line and has made its way into affluent neighborhoods around Fort Mill and Tega Cay.

“Unfortunately, where we’re located makes it easy,” said Jeffrey Ferris, group supervisor with the Charlotte division of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

Black tar heroin – “extremely dangerous and highly addictive” – is “crudely refined,” Ferris said, and is one of the cheapest, easiest forms of heroin that dealers can manufacture for less time and money.

In eight years, more black tar heroin has filtered into Charlotte, Ferris said, affecting every socioeconomic class, racial demographic and age group – including high school and college students.

“The age is dropping from the typical users,” he said. Agents are “seeing more and more 18- to 24-year-olds” abusing the drug.

“A lot of it stems from the abuse of pharmaceuticals, which is being abused by younger crowds because it doesn’t have the stigma,” he said. Teens and young adults think “if a doctor’s prescribed it, it can’t be all that bad for you.”

But it is, says Ferris, and heroin users can suffer infections from shared syringes.

Manufacturers sometimes roll the “poison” with dirt, he said, and some users try to hide their drug abuse by injecting the heroin between their toes.

‘Little surges’ in York County

There’s no “set reason” the Charlotte region is suffering from the heroin epidemic, Ferris said, adding that the city’s population and access to major highways factor into the problem.

Though Charlotte has seen its share of cocaine and methamphetamine , he said, the city was largely unclaimed by one dominant drug. But within the past decade, Mexico-based drug trafficking organizations began moving into the city, treating it as new, uncharted territory.

Cities similar in size and demographically to Charlotte – such as Columbia; Nashville, Tenn.; and Columbus, Ohio – also have been affected by black tar heroin, Ferris said.

With the drug migrating south, York County Coroner Sabrina Gast has seen some deaths related to heroin overdose – although she said they usually occur in “little surges.”

The county might see three or four heroin deaths at one time, then a drop-off. After a significant amount of time has passed, she said, they re-emerge.

“It’s not too common, although we do see it,” Gast said.

Coroners have investigated one suspected heroin overdose in the county this year, Gast said. There was one heroin-related death in 2009 and another in 2010.

Drug agents made 12 heroin-related arrests in the county last year and have made six so far this year.

‘A dangerous combination’

Heroin is “such a different drug,” Beck said. “You can walk up to someone with an ounce of heroin and you may not smell it. It’s a smaller drug, too,” often sold by a tenth of a gram instead of in ounces or full grams.

It packs more punch in small doses. Measured as grains, most heroin capable of fitting on a fingernail can be enough to convince officials to make an arrest and secure a conviction for possession with intent to distribute, Beck said.

A person needs to only have 0.12 grams of heroin to be considered a dealer, Beck said. By comparison, it takes 28 grams of marijuana for police to charge someone with possession with intent to distribute.

Dealers often sell black tar heroin in a “common balloon” – a small rubber balloon that might hold only a tenth of a gram, Ferris said. The balloon could cost a user between $10 and $20, as opposed to some opiates, which can cost $80.

“If you have young adults in high school or college who only have so many dollars and (they’re) addicted to opiates, that’s a dangerous combination,” he said.

Heroin is “making a comeback,” said Jane Alleva, director of All On Board, a York County alcohol and drug-abuse education coalition.

“It’s coming back because OxyContin is very much connected to the same kind of chemical that heroin has,” she said. “You get addicted to OxyContin, but heroin is a lot cheaper and, in some ways, more accessible than it is to get the prescription OxyContin.”

OxyContin can only be obtained legally with a prescription, but in York County, a “network of doctors” have become suspicious of more patients seeking pills.

So addicts are turning to needles to feed their craving when their doctors won’t write the prescriptions.

Addicts are ignoring practical warnings against using and sharing needles and injecting themselves anyway.

“If you’re a full addict, you just want the high,” Alleva said.

Counselors and prevention specialists at Keystone Substance Abuse Center haven’t seen an influx of heroin-addicted patients, said Janet Bunch, Keystone’s adolescent treatment director.

“That just means they haven’t sought treatment,” Bunch said.

Still, she said, it’s something the center is looking out for.

‘Style over substance’

In 2009, officials noted a growing number of Fort Mill and Tega Cay teens and young adults developing addictions to prescription pain pills.

Alleva said then that among the more than 100 teens treated at Rock Hill’s Keystone Substance Abuse Center, most said alcohol was their biggest substance abuse weakness. Pills were second.

Heroin is now in the running.

“We all thought heroin was something we saw in the 1970s and we’d never see that again,” Alleva said. “This is black tar, which is a cleaner, stronger heroin…more potent.”

“Pill cases have been a huge thing in the Fort Mill/Tega Cay area,” Beck said, adding that users have realized that buying pills is too expensive so they buy the cheaper stuff and inject it directly into their bloodstreams.

Still, he said, there’s a “huge stigma” about using needles, “even in the drug community.”

“A lot of them feel, ‘I am not shooting that up,’” he said. “We’ve seen people go to extremes to get around the needle,” including one man who mixed heroin and water and snorted it up his nose.

“There’s no part of that that’s a good idea,” said Beck. “That’s the scary part about it. You don’t see obvious track marks. It’s not like back in the 1990s, whenever grunge rock (bands) were using heroin and they all had the track marks on their arms. You don’t see them anymore.”

Fort Mill and Tega Cay’s affluent users, he said, still show concern about their outward appearance.

“They may be drug addicts, but they’re still going to look good,” Beck said. “Style over substance, any day.”

Some users are able to overcome the stigma against needles, the DEA’s Ferris said, by wrapping the drug in tin foil, burning it and smoking it “like crack.”

He calls the easier ways to ingest and produce the drug an effective “marketing” technique – one that appeals to Rock Hill users, as well.

“We’ve been making heroin cases in Rock Hill for probably just as long as we’ve been making them in Fort Mill,” Beck said.

In February, agents arrested 30-year-old Samuel William Rhodes, who Beck said had turned his late father’s home bordering Lake Wylie into a vault for needles, syringes and black tar heroin.

“He pretty much squatted there,” Beck said, adding that members of Rhodes’ family had tried to help him several times. “He was just strung out on dope and had been that way for years.”

When Rhodes’ brother asked agents to check on him, a York County sheriff’s report said, they didn’t find him – but did find needles, pills and other drug paraphernalia.

Rhodes later pleaded guilty to possession of cocaine, narcotics and heroin. He was sentenced to two years probation and ordered to pay a series of fines.

‘A dangerous sport’

Many of Fort Mill’s black tar heroin users are young adults and high school students who come from middle- and upper-income families who live in “nice neighborhoods,” authorities said.

“These aren’t people living under bridges,” Beck said. “We’ve dealt with people before who sell drugs out of survival, people who don’t have jobs; they don’t have any prospects of doing anything. They’re high school dropouts. They don’t have the education they need to go further in life.

“They feel that they don’t have any other way to make it.”

Not so in Fort Mill.

“Up here, it just seems like they sell drugs for sport,” Beck said. “It’s a dangerous sport.”

Beck’s team often encounters “full-blown heroin addicts” whose priorities have shifted.

A few years ago, drug agents worked a case in which a Fort Mill man left three small children home alone while he and his girlfriend “went to score heroin in Charlotte,” Beck said.

“People’s priorities change; they become even more of an addict than they were before when they were addicted to the pills,” he said. “They’re chasing that high; they’re chasing it and trying to find it with the black tar heroin.”

A decade ago, black tar heroin’s purity – the concentration of the pure form of a drug in one dose – ranged between seven to 12 percent, Ferris said.

The potency was so low, he said, that “you had to inject it to get your high.”

But now, “the purity of black tar heroin has gone up considerably,” he said. “We’re now seeing 50 to 80 percent” purity per dose.

“Drug traffickers have caused the purity to go up,” he said. “It’s more potent; the addictive qualities are greater and now you have other methods” of ingesting it.

‘Our eyes and ears’

Heroin isn’t the only hardcore drug circulating in and around Fort Mill and Tega Cay.

Several young adults are finding themselves behind bars for selling or taking LSD and MDMA or ecstacy.

For more than a month, Beck said, drug agents investigated 21-year-old Erik Cole and his girlfriend, Monica Mims, 18, for allegedly selling at least for 100 doses of LSD for $700 each out of Cole’s parent’s house in Tega Cay.

The home was near Runde Park and its baseball fields filled with young children and parents. On Sept. 7, officials arrested Mims and Cole, charging them each with several counts of distribution of LSD and distribution of LSD near a park.

In July, Mitchell Kara Wright Poindexter was 17 and living with his parents in Fort Mill when York County drug agents arrested him. Agents reported after finding marijuana, ecstasy and LSD in his car.

After searching his home, police officials found more marijuana and 7.5 grams of MDMA and several capsules used for packaging, according to a York County sheriff’s incident report.

“That’s the most MDMA I’ve seen in this area,” Beck said.

Still, Beck said, many of the hardcore drug cases officials encountered this year remain under investigation.

The drug unit owes much of its caseload to neighborhood residents “being involved and reporting what’s happening to law enforcement,” Beck said.

“There’s only so many deputies and city police officers to go around,” he said. “These people in the community, these are our eyes and ears.”

Not everyone is willing to lend a hand. Beck said he has spoken with people who were clueless about the drug activity in their neighborhoods and once they learned of it, they opted to move.

“That’s not the answer,” Beck said. “You can’t always run.”

Officials have made “dealer-level drug cases” in almost all Fort Mill and Tega Cay neighborhoods over the years, Beck said.

“So moving isn’t the answer,” he said. “The answer is to fight back against it as a community. Be aware and help.

“Fort Mill is not an area of peach trees and a small town anymore.”

Jonathan McFadden 803-329-4082

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