“It takes less than 30 seconds before you feel a head rush. You feel a layer of warmth over your entire body. It makes you dizzy but you can control it and sustain it. After that you feel amazing, almost like a dream.”
This is how George, a 26-year old Salem resident, describes a heroin high.
“You feel a tingling sensation, a wave of euphoria over your entire body. It’s like a warm blanket, like a magic tree or an island that not very many people know about,” he says.
According to the National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC), Salem is a regional distribution point for both heroin and methamphetamine. They say between 2005 and 2008 large quantities of heroin were warehoused in the Salem area. Salem’s access to I-5 makes it an asset to the pushers selling to markets in Eugene and Portland.
Utilizing organizations like “No Meth Not in MY Neighborhood,” the community has taken a stiff position on meth usage and the result is a reduction in the amount of meth used in the city. The number of meth laboratories seized, according to a 2009 report from the NDIC, had steadily decreased between 2005 and 2008. In both 2007 and 2008, no labs were seized in Salem. There may be small labs operating, they say, but their production capacity is likely limited.
Meanwhile, heroin usage in the Cherry City has increased. The users aren’t necessarily the stereotypical junkies that could easily be chosen out of a line-up. They are the city’s sons, daughters, brothers, sisters and parents; the construction workers, musicians, the college students and the unemployed.
George grew up Mormon, but abandoned the religion in his teens.
“It wasn’t rebelling. It was me having an open slate to find my own answers. Now I know why others do it so I don’t judge them the same way I used to,” says George, who occasionally takes opiates. He hasn’t done heroin in over a year but he’s constantly tempted to go back despite having felt the painful withdrawals.
“I hate needles, but if it’s a needle full of heroin, let’s do it,” he says.
At 21, George was going to Chemeketa Community College and snorting pills on a daily basis, usually one 80mg Oxycontin. He says some senior citizens are making money off of kids by selling their prescriptions while other times kids steal them from their sick relatives. Other sources might be hookups in the pharmaceutical industry, which might explain the steady and large supply some dealers have, he says.
“I found the gateway drug. I went from pills to the inevitable heroin. I thought pills were so much less dangerous than cocaine because they’re legal and doctors hand them out,” says George.
Four years later, he injected heroin for the first time, through a co-worker who was also popping pills but had progressed to heroin. George was having girl trouble and that’s all it took to take his habit to the next level.
“He asked me to bring needles. My mom is a diabetic, so I knew they’d be clean. That got rid of 90 percent of the scare. The other part is how clean the heroin is … or overdosing,” he says.
After taking his mother’s needles, George went to his co-worker’s house.
“You put heroin and water on a spoon. You burn it so that it mixes with the water. You cook it until it bubbles up, for a couple seconds. It looks like Coca-Cola but a little lighter. It’s like coffee. You can make it really black and strong if you want,” says George.
George handed his arm to his co-worker and after tying his belt around his biceps to make the vein pop, he let him draw some blood out and shoot the blood and heroin back in.
He loved the feeling.
George spent the rest of the evening driving around, listening to music, visiting friends and he got the courage to go have a serious talk with his girlfriend, who eventually tried heroin too.
“She went wall-eyed within like 20 minutes. I freaked out but I was high on heroin so I just said, ‘I can fix this; we just have to have sex!’”
While George had access to his mother’s needles, Robert, a 22-year old musician, did not. He recently found out he contracted Hepatitis C.
“I [shared a needle] a couple times. I thought bleaching the needle cleaned it. I think we didn’t bleach it enough,” he says, explaining that when your own needle gets dull, it hurts.
In Oregon, needles are available over-the-counter. A general pharmacy sells a ten pack of needles for $4.99. But Robert says, “When you’re doing drugs you don’t have $5 to spend.”
He says many people are bleaching needles because there is no place in Salem to exchange them.
Despite the marks on his arms and a carrying case full of needles a dealer gave him, Robert doesn’t think he’s addicted to drugs.
“If I had a steady income I would probably overdo it and get to the point where I’m physically addicted. But right now it’s like my drink of choice a couple times a week, dark beer or whiskey. I can do it and not harm other people. If I wanna self-destruct and create music, that’s my path for now,” he says.
In some circles, it’s more socially acceptable to be a heroin addict than it would to be a meth head.
“Heroin is cooler if you’re in the bohemian lifestyle. There is some weird comeback. It’s more accepted because meth has become like the monster drug,” says Robert, who enjoys shooting both.
He started taking Adderall and morphine at parties, “basically meth and heroin but pharmaceutical.” He says that writers and thinkers such as William S. Burroughs who were into heroin inspired his curiosity, “but the pharmaceutical morphine is what planted the seed.”
While Robert says that it’s more accepted than meth, heroin isn’t as accepted as the more prominent marijuana.
“Everyone would be cool with me smoking weed all the time, but my friends are not cool with me doing this. I judge [potheads] as being lazy and stupid, slow-witted and boring. I recognize I’m doing the same thing they’re doing by judging them. They enjoy marijuana just as much as the guy who’s doing speed.”
He also points out the hypocritical nature of a legal system that allows one person to legally obtain prescribed opiates at the local pharmacy, but another person to go to prison for doing the same thing.
“A housewife can take 60 mg of Oxycontin but some kid can’t snort it and go to school. Jail is hell. It’s like the absence of everything beautiful and people are just trying to find beauty,” he says.
Opiates have become a part of many of Salem’s party scenes. George says that he can easily get morphine from a local bartender, and Robert says most marijuana dealers have access to pills and heroin as well.
Heroin deals take place in every part of town. In addition to the run-of-the-mill dealers, there are also shooting galleries where people are using heroin at all times of the day.
“You walk in and you see clutter or an absence of things,” says Robert. “In West Salem, they’re mostly ex-military dudes. In other parts they’re dirty old men who steal things and are always hustling. Sometimes you find people caught up in that world, like a young girl, and you feel sorry for them, or people just stopping by to get the drugs and get out, like me,” he says. The most common way of getting heroin is walking miles to the dealer’s house, because gas money is going into the vein instead of the tank.
That’s why 22-year-old James decided to quit.
“I was working my ass off to get heroin. I would walk five miles in the rain. I was miserable,” says James, on his fourth day of being clean.
He started snorting, popping and smoking opiate-based pharmaceuticals at 16.
“I would’ve never tried heroin if I wasn’t fond of other opiates,” he says.
He obtained the pills from his grandmother, who he says was over-prescribed pain medication.
“She would wail and complain [to her doctors] until she got the opiates she wanted,” recalls James.
At 21, he switched to smoking heroin, which he says is almost identical to doing Oxycontin, but cheaper, costing an average of $20 a day while pills usually start at $35.
“There are lower prices for heroin because you can cut it, with grape Jolly Ranchers, hard candy or coffee,” he says.
However, his usage increased to the point where he was doing a gram a day, which can cost around $100, so he started selling to support his habit.
Although he’s been around his family high on heroin plenty of times, they’ve never found out about it.
“There are huge stereotypes [associated with] heroin addicts, a.k.a. junkies, that aren’t true. That it completely immobilizes you, that it makes you incapable of interacting with other people, and that all addicts steal. I don’t steal any rims,” he says.
James says that cliches aside, the drug is ruining his life.
“It’s getting to the point where I care about nothing else but heroin. It can certainly drive people to the lowest point because it makes you feel like you’re OK when you’re not. You don’t care about talking to your family or paying bills. All you care about is heroin,” he says.
James is now taking Suboxone to help him get off heroin.
“Luckily, a friend has a prescription because I have no insurance,” he says.
George resorted to street-bought Suboxone, which goes for about $10 a pill, he says. Others use methadone. Unfortunately, many people become addicted to both. In 2008, there were 131 methadone overdose deaths in Oregon compared to 119 heroin-related deaths.
Others have found a way to get sober by joining support groups such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA) which has thousands of members in the Salem area, of all ages and walks of life. Keddy has been clean and sober for 12 years and he sponsors other addicts.
“I help show them the way, suggesting things that I did when I first got clean and sober,” says Keddy, who is still tempted a couple times a month.
“I wake up in the morning and feel like doing drugs, I’m not gonna lie. I did drugs because I loved to do them. My hobby was motorcycles and drugs just like some people love mountain biking,” he says, adding that it’s unknown why some people can do drugs and not become addicted while others can’t, though he believes a majority does develop an addiction.
“If they’re unsure they have a problem, they should look at their situation in life. If every time they’ve been arrested they’ve been under the influence, they probably have a problem,” says Keddy.
He has noticed an increase in people coming to NA meetings with opiate addiction, but he says Salemites continue to focus more on meth.
“Opiates are big right now and meth is decreasing. But do you see anything on the news about opiates? No, you see them chasing meth heads all the time. Meth this, meth that. And it’s more the younger crowd that is using the opiates. Society is so blind to what’s going on right now,” he says.
Keddy spent six years in prison and had become a “street junkie, scraping enough money together to get drugs for the day” and now has a good job, a nice car and a good relationship.
He believes that everyone deserves the great life that he has now being clean and sober.
“I recommend anyone to come check out an NA meeting if they have an addiction to anything. It doesn’t hurt and it doesn’t cost anything. It’s one addict understanding and helping another addict.”
In the meantime, what Robert says drug users in town need is better access to food and shelter, and clean needles.
[Editor's Note: The names included in this story have been changed to protect the identity of the people who shared their very real experiences.]
The only detox program in Marion/Polk is Bridgeway Recovery Services. Heroin detox may last 5-10 days and it entails stopping use and sometimes taking anti-anxiety medication. It is sometimes followed by treatment in a residential program. Participants may be prescribed Suboxone for one to six months as a short-term maintenance drug or be put on methadone long-term to manage heroin cravings.
There are two methadone programs in the area, Willamette Valley Treatment Services and the Marion County Health Department Methadone Treatment Services.
The other community resources specialize in outpatient treatment only, and they are Clear Paths, Marion County Health Department Treatment Services for Adolescents and Polk County Alcohol and Drug Services.
Bridgeway Recovery Services
3325 Harold Dr. NE
Outpatient, detox and residential program.
It generally takes about a day to be accepted into the detox program, but it may be quicker depending on the severity of the situation. Heroin detox takes 5-10 days.
Willamette Valley Treatment Services
Outpatient, Methadone program
115 Lancaster Dr. NE
Marion County Health Department
Methadone Treatment Services
2035 Davcor St. SE
Clear Paths, Inc.
3793 River Rd., Keizer
Outpatient treatment only
Marion County Health Department
2421 Lancaster Dr. NE
Polk County Alcohol and Drug Services (For West Salem and Polk County Residents)
Outpatient Treatment Services
182 SW Academy, Suite 304, Dallas
Phone/24-hour hotline: 503-990-0861
Outside of the Salem area, visit na.org for meeting information.