Is Salem ignoring a rise in heroin usage?


“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.]

Need help?

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

Phone: 503-363-2021

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


Narcotics Anonymous

Phone/24-hour hotline: 503-990-0861

Outside of the Salem area, visit for meeting information.

6 thoughts on “Is Salem ignoring a rise in heroin usage?”

  1. Wow!!!? Heroin is back, who would have thunk.

    You can see the cycle of government abuse. Do these heroin users realize that the meth commercials they laugh at are the exact blue print of the heroin commercials the government did in the 90′s set to portisehead. Same drug, same purity, and made in Mexico and if we toughen the laws it comes from China.

    Here is the real answer (first admit America is THE drug problem) second:

    Legalize Marijuana to destroy the drug cartels in Mexico (this would get rid of 70 percent of the prophet) and lead a segway where America could economically overtake Mexico since 80 percent of their economy is based on drug trafficking.

    Legalize and make methadone more easily accessible to compete with the 80 percent pure street heroin on the street. Hey do I want to get really fucked up and homeless on heroin or just feel kind of good…methadone sounds good.

    Bring back Mahuang and a light version of ritalin that can’t be abused to treat meth addiction. I think most people would prefer to be high and functional…..not crazy, in jail, or dead.

    Oh, and prescribe a light version of government prescribed LSD for spiritual purposes to combat drub and alcohol addiction.

    Otherwise we are going to do anti heroin commercial, anti speed commercial, anti heroin commercial, anti speed commercial. I’m so over it.

  2. That’s sad. I’ve been battling heroin addiction for a couple years and it’s so true. All these young kids getting started on pills at 14, 15 and shooting heroin by the time they are 16, 17. I hope they can find a way to actually stop using drugs and become physically and spiritually healthy instead of just replacing their heroin addiction with a more “manageable” addiction to something else.

  3. Hey I just moved to Salem from NJ. I have am now in detox can anyone let me know what the best treatment is and or were to go to get aid

  4. My son died of an accidental overdose a couple of weeks ago. He leaves behind a daughter and a family who loved him dearly. He wasn’t just another junkie or statistic. He was my son. The last male of his grandfather’s lineage. A sweet, smart young man who had lost his way because of the mental illness of depression and addiction, and we loved him very much. But we could not help him in the end. Now my heart is broken and his family is grieving. It’s hard not to become very angry. Whoever sold or gave him the dope – you know who you are. How do you live with yourself?

    1. I can 100% guarantee that I am not the person who supplied your son with the poison that killed him — I quit that business a long time ago. However, I feel it is important to note the following:

      1) a majority of “drug dealers” only sell drugs to maintain their own dependence. That’s why I sold heroin: because I was psychologically and physically Dependent on heroin, but at the time had no way to pay for my chemical crutches without picking up the figurative conductor’s cap and distributing it to other users of heroin…

      2) …in no way am I trying to suggest that My experience is representative of whomsoever sold or gave it to your son, but In My Experience, I have never — not even once — met a person engaged in the business of heroin who does not struggle daily with anxiety, depression, self-loathing, and — in some extreme cases — self-harm and suicide, all directly or indirectly stemming from the unyielding cultural propaganda which misrepresents their use and distribution of heroin as a personality failure, a moral bankruptcy, an unethical and deliberate decision to ensnare naïve and impressionable youngsters in a web of maliciously-imposed drug dependence or addiction…

      3)…if heroin and other drugs were decriminalised and regulated, as has already happened in Portugal (and much of Western Europe), the rate of fatal overdose would be very nearly eliminated — along with the rate at which young persons “graduate” from comparatively innocuous drugs (like cannabis, MDMA, LSD, mushrooms, etc…) to much more dangerous and addictive drugs such as heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, and alcohol. (Before you protest,please note that of All the drugs known to mankind, NONE is more societally destructive than alcohol, which Also holds the dubious distinction of being the most widely used and abused date-rape-drug in the world.)

      Your son’s death is absolutely a tragedy, and it is in his memory and for his honour that I have been — and won’t give up — fighting so emphatically for At Least some kind of significant reform to our nation’s ineffective, institutionally repulsive, and quite honestly morally indefensible War On Drugs, an egregious and ongoing policy failure which has destroyed countless millions of lives, left parents without sons, filled our prisons like sardine tins (disproportionately with young people of colour), wasted trillions of dollars, enriched criminal trafficking organisations, and in spite of all this harm, has Not diminished the supply, quality, availability, or allure of dangerous drugs like heroin.

      The drug problem isn’t drugs, it’s the War On Drugs — without which, your son May have been able to get the help he needed.

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