A marked increase in the amount of heroin flowing into the town and the recent drug-related deaths of three teenagers have sparked concern among residents and police in Oro Valley.
In 2007, Oro Valley police seized 27 grams of heroin. By December 2008, officers had taken nearly 100 grams of heroin off the streets.
A bust last week brings the 2009 total to 55 grams — on pace to more than double last year’s take.
“This is definitely a very dangerous trend,” Oro Valley Police Sgt. Mike McBride said last week.
Drug busts have become a common occurrence for Oro Valley investigators.
Last Tuesday afternoon, members of the force’s Community Action Team followed two men from a house in Oro Valley to the parking lot of a Walgreens’ store at First Avenue and River Road.
There, the men met a woman who had arranged to buy heroin, according to police. The Oro Valley officers rushed in before the drug transaction could take place and arrested the men.
The men told officers they had come to the U.S. illegally from Mexico.
They had with them about 10 grams of heroin worth as much as $1,000 and a small amount of cocaine of undetermined value.
While the demonstrable increase of such drug activity in Oro Valley has raised concerns, the increasingly young age of people using heroin troubles local police.
Last year, town police arrested a 15-year-old who already had begun to use heroin intravenously.
The arrest shocked police because most users, especially youthful experimenters, start out by snorting or smoking powder forms of heroin.
Once the addiction grabs hold, users often resort to intravenous use to get the desired high.
It’s a junkie’s cost-benefit analysis with potentially deadly consequences.
The grip of addiction
On March 18, 17-year-old Evan Cueto was rushed to a local hospital where doctors later pronounced him dead.
According to statements by a Pima County Sheriff’s Department spokesperson, the boy died of a likely heroin overdose.
Amphitheater School District officials confirmed that the boy attended Canyon Del Oro High School.
Last August, two Northwest teens died from drug-related overdoses.
Autopsy reports revealed that the boys — a 17-year-old CDO student and an 18-year-old former CDO student — both died from fatal doses of methadone.
Doctors at rehabilitation clinics often prescribe methadone to recovering heroin addicts.
A powerful painkiller, the drug produces muted heroin-like effects, according to drug studies. But unlike heroin, the drug acts slowly.
When methadone is taken to get high, users who don’t feel the drug’s effects rapidly often will take multiple doses.
“Methadone has a very long half-life in the body,” said Dr. Richard Wahl, a pediatrician with the University Medical Center.
That half-life means the drug lingers in the body, increasing the risk of overdose and death.
Wahl has been the medical director at the Pima County Juvenile Detention Center since 2004. He has worked at the jail since the mid-1990s.
In that time he’s seen firsthand the problems of teen drug addiction.
“Over the last several years, I’ve absolutely seen an increase of teens and young people with heroin issues,” Wahl said.
The increase is particularly shocking when considering the power of heroin addiction.
When using, addicts often experience feelings of intense relaxation and painlessness, Wahl explained.
“When you withdraw (from the drug), all the exact opposite symptoms are there,” he added.
Those symptoms can include rapid breathing, intense physical pain, agitation and rampant diarrhea.
That cycle of soaring heights of use followed by the dramatic lows of withdrawal leads many into full-fledged addiction.
“The focus of your life is avoiding the withdrawal symptoms,” Wahl said.
Youths who experiment with heroin don’t consider the long-term effects. Police said they also don’t consider the other dangers.
According to Sgt. McBride, it’s not a stretch to connect many dealers to violent criminal enterprises.
With considerable amounts of money at stake, many dealers take drug sales deadly serious.
“It’s not unusual for them to carry guns,” McBride said.
Members of his team last year arrested a gun-wielding dealer, and last September, an Oro Valley detective shot and killed a suspected heroin dealer who attempted to run down officers with his car to avoid capture.
Young drug users can quickly find themselves ingrained in an increasingly violent drug culture previously foreign to them and almost always unknown to their parents, police said.
“A lot of these kids are not bad kids — they just get wrapped up in this evil drug,” McBride lamented.
When parents realize their child has a problem, there’s often little they can do.
Out of frustration and the hope that jail would keep their child away from drugs, many parents have resorted to calling police and asking them to arrest their drug-abusing children, McBride said.
“I’ve never heard of parents sending their kids to jail so much until this heroin epidemic,” McBride said.
The recent deaths have led some to wonder why a mostly affluent community like Oro Valley has seen a spike in heroin arrests.
According to some, wealth may be part of the reason.
“There is a perception, whether right or wrong, that it is tied to socio-economic structures,” said Todd Jaeger, the Amphitheater School District attorney and an aide to Superintendent Vicki Balentine.
A clear dividing line runs through the district like the Berlin Wall. District schools qualifying for the federal free- and reduced-lunch program are south of the Rillito River. None of the schools north of the river — including several in Oro Valley — qualify for federal assistance.
“My sense is that your upper-middle class areas have an even greater drug problem,” Wahl said. “In other words, this is not a South Tucson problem, this is a Foothills problem.”
According to the 2000 U.S. Census, Oro Valley’s median household income was $61,000, or about $21,000 more than the statewide average.
Districts in other affluent areas also have had problems.
In 2005, a series of underage heroin arrests shocked the tony Catalina Foothills High School community.
There, police arrested three students for possessing the drug while at school.
Events like that have helped fuel the perception of teen heroin use as a phenomenon confined to wealthier communities.
That perception has seeped into the popular culture, as well.
A 2007 entry on the Web site “The Urban Dictionary” — an online reference of slang expressions — describes Oro Valley as a community “mostly full of rich old people and pissed-off teenagers a lot of which steal money from they’re parents and get heroin.”
In 2008, Time Magazine ranked “The Urban Dictionary” among its top 50 most popular Web sites.
Despite the increased publicity teen heroin use has received here and the recent rash of deaths associated with narcotics, Amphitheater’s Jaeger warns against overreaction.
“I don’t have any reason to believe that we have a heroin issue at CDO or any other school that would be out of the norm,” Jaeger said, adding, “Every one of these deaths is a terrible loss.”
Drug use statistics among teenagers could validate Jaeger’s caution.
National studies conducted by the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future, show that about 1.3 percent of high school seniors surveyed in 2008 had used heroin in their lifetimes.
That’s slightly down from 2007 and decidedly lower than the peak year of 2000, when 2.4 percent of high-school seniors said they had used the drug at least once.
Recent statewide surveys, however, paint a slightly different picture of drug use.
A 2008 Arizona Criminal Justice Commission survey of youth drug use found that 3.1 percent of the state’s high school seniors had used heroin.
Like other districts across the state, Amphitheater has a drug awareness program.
At CDO, the school holds an event for parents and students twice a year designed to discourage drug use. The events rarely draw more than a handful of people, Jaeger said.
“It reflects the fact,” Jaeger said, “that people don’t see that there is a problem until it affects them directly.”
Oro Valley police in recent years have begun confiscating more heroin.
2007: 27 grams confiscated
2008: 97 grams confiscated
2009: 55 grams confiscated to date; on pace to seize 165 grams, or 70 percent more than in 2008
Source: Oro Valley Police