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More and more Tucson kids are getting into black tar heroin--placing their lives at stake


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I grew up in Los Angeles, and when I was a kid, we used to go to the La Brea Tar Pits. They were just so friggin' mesmerizing and horrifying: innocent creatures tens of thousands of years ago wading in but never wading out, trapped beneath the surface of muck so insidious and absolute that once stuck, it was nearly impossible for the animals to get out. Most of these creatures were never seen again--until some paleontologist dug up their bones eons later.

Such were the images running through my mind while talking to John Leggio, program director of The Mark, an intensive outpatient program for chemical dependence here in Tucson. We were discussing black tar heroin. It's huge in the Western United States and whoppingly popular in Tucson, particularly--but not exclusively--with kids in the Catalina Foothills area.

"A lot of these kids are already smoking pot," he says, "which, by the way, is a whole different animal than the stuff we used to know. These kids who think it's harmless because it's natural don't know what they're talking about. Marijuana these days is engineered for the highest THC content possible. You don't find anything like that in nature."

And black tar heroin has a similar presentation: It's dark in color, and you can smoke it. Kids, who are generally adverse to needles with memories of childhood vaccinations still fresh in their minds, find this very appealing. And since it's sometimes processed with brown sugar, it even smells good, like burning cotton candy. In one sense, it's like Zima, wine coolers and all those other alcoholic beverages that taste like soda pop, created specifically to appeal to young people. Maybe black tar heroin is the Camel cigarettes of drugs.

A high that lasts four to six hours can be had for about $10, a gram for about $60. Around these parts, black tar heroin comes in little foil packages, distributed by massive networks of drug peddlers making rounds in the community all day long. Kids heat it on foil and inhale the smoke through a straw, or anything that functions as one.

"You see a lot of it, huh?" I ask.

Leggio looks exhausted, like Hercules battling the Hydra, like he's been at it for thousands of years. "More and more all the time."

It's been said that black tar heroin is to white-powder heroin what crack is to white-powder cocaine, meaning it's more powerful and hooks users quicker. Leggio says sometimes people are hooked after the first time. "We're still learning how to treat it. Traditional methadone maintenance doesn't work, because adolescents, who have not yet developed coping skills for emotional pain and stress, miss the high."

Initial detox for an addict--involving vomiting, chills, depression, rage and the whole cold-turkey bag--takes 10 to 14 days, but post-acute withdrawal can take up to a year. "I don't know why this is," says Leggio. "Maybe because they smoke it, and it permeates the lung tissue. ... I just don't know."

Of course, black tar can also be injected, although there are problems with this approach. Because of the rough processing and high levels of miscellaneous ingredients, black tar tends to collapse veins quickly. This can lead to subcutaneous injection, which, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, causes necrotizing fasciitis, or skin abscesses. These lesions, commonly called "poppers," are increasingly seen in emergency rooms throughout the Tucson metro area.

"And a lot of these kids are liars, but they tell me they don't even know they're lying. They don't have control over their lies, because the drug co-opts the brain. If they don't have it, their brains trick them and start telling them things like, 'Life's terrible and impossible and not worth living, anyway,' so they might as well get high. There's nothing to lose. That's how insidious this drug is."

My mind's gone from mastodons stuck in tar pits to zombies, werewolves and vampires, creatures who have traded their souls for the sake of a load of nothingness. Leggio says that's about right: With blank stares, nice kids who a year earlier were spending their allowance on new video games have turned to jacking up the community, stealing cars and ripping off family members, enthralled--in the truest sense of the word--by wads of black gunk.

"Getting them off it, getting them to stay off it, it's a hard road," Leggio says, shaking his head.

"And the alternative is?" I ask naively.

He looks at me like it's so obvious, he can't believe I've missed it. Of course, he's been treating substance abuse for 30 years.

"They die. Most heroin addicts end up dying."


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