Heroin hits home: How one drug took over Loudoun

Will sits in a parking lot near the Ashburn neighborhood where he once sold and used heroin. - Times-Mirror Ben Hancock

Gun shots rang out. Bullets were whizzing by Will's head. His feet were jumping out from under him, running as fast as they could. His breath quickened.

Just seconds earlier Will was seated next to a group of drug traffickers. The backdrop was climate-controlled Santa Cruz, Calif., a long way from his Loudoun County home and his middle-class upbringing.

He and a friend were in the midst of a drug deal gone bad. Will punched one of the gang members, jumped out of his passenger seat and fled.

"I was running for my life and then they were after me and him for two weeks," Will said.

The two camped out at a Rite Aid, because the store had security guards posted 24 hours a day.

Originally Will had moved to California to live with his sister, running from a past life of petty crime and rampant drug usage, from a wrap sheet which would surely put him in jail.

He was also running toward an existence separated from his suburban upbringing.

"Faces and places, you know" he says now.

So there he was crouched in the bushes, wondering if a gang member might kill him.

After two weeks of looking over his shoulder, he came back home, to Ashburn, to face the music, to go to jail, to get away from the hole he dug himself in California.

Will says he's been clean now for a year, he recently finished his midterms at Northern Virginia Community College, and is taking Suboxone, a drug which helps him suppress the cravings for more powerful opiates.

Recovering drug addicts often speak about the rock-bottom moment that cleared their head, made them decide to quit. Getting shot at by a group of Mexican-American gang members thousands of miles from home could certainly qualify as such a moment for most individuals. Not for Will.

The episode in California was just the beginning of a 10-year drug addiction that spanned two coasts and ended with a failed drug test as a parolee in Loudoun County corrections.

Will's name is a pseudonym. The Times-Mirror agreed to allow him to not use his real name because he has concerns about his current and potential future employers hearing about his past.

When possible, the Times-Mirror corroborated his story with reporting. When stories could not be corroborated, they are attributed to relayed anecdotes.

80 overdoses since 2010

Since 2010 more than 80 people in Loudoun County have overdosed on heroin. Of those 80 people, 20 lost their lives. More than half of those deaths, 11, happened last year.

In March 2014, concerns grew so high about the ever-mounting death toll that the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office, Leesburg Police Department and State Attorney General Mark Herring met to discuss ways to curb heroin usage.

A few months later, members of the Virginia congressional delegation asked Gov. Terry McAuliffe to set up a heroin task force, which he did.

"Not a week goes by without a local newspaper or TV news program in Virginia reporting on the death of yet another heroin addict. Many localities are on track to see double the number of heroin overdose deaths over last year," read the letter from lawmakers requesting the formation of the task force.

This past week, Congresswoman Barbara Comstock (R-10), Northern Virginia law enforcement agencies and local support services from around the region announced the Heroin Operations Team, a team created to "address the rising use of heroin and related overdoses that have impacted citizens in and around Loudoun County," read one prepared statement from the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office.

Earlier this year a package of heroin-related legislation was passed in an attempt to cut back on heroin deaths.

The legislative response comes at a time when the drug has taken an even stronger foothold in white, upper-middle class families in the suburbs.

One report from the Journal of the American Medical Association from 2013 read, "The demographic composition of heroin users entering treatment has shifted over the last 50 years such that heroin use has changed from an inner-city, minority-centered problem to one that has a more widespread geographical distribution, involving primarily white men and women in their late 20s living outside of large urban areas."

The description certainly sounds like Loudoun County. The user base also sounded like Will, who was a Loudoun County heroin addict straight out of central casting, 20-something and white, prone to addiction and just coming off a surgery requiring major dosages of pain medication.

For years Will had been recreationally using drugs, but his opioid dependency began shortly after he had a throat biopsy, which nearly became infected, and required pain medication.

Doctors prescribed liquid hydrocodone syrup.

"They gave me refill after refill of these huge bottles of hydrocodone," he says.

Once those bottles ran out, Will began a practice, popular among prescription drug abusers, called doctor shopping, where a patient keeps trying different doctors until a prescription for painkillers is written.

Measures were taken around the same time to squeeze the supply of opioid painkillers to people who might abuse the drug. One of these measures was the Virginia Prescription Monitoring Program, which was devised as a way to track a patient's past history with prescription drugs.

The program gave doctors the tools to monitor whether or not a patient was doctor shopping. It forced other physicians to be more judicious with the drugs they prescribed.

By July 2015 every doctor applying to renew his or her license or apply for a new license will be required to enter into the program.

Education and the pressure on doctors to scale back prescriptions from major news coverage also may have cut down on prescription opioid sales.

Purdue Pharma, the company responsible for manufacturing and distributing Oxycontin, a top-selling opioid, sold fewer pills in 2012 and 2013 than in years past.

Will said the prescription monitoring program was so effective it drove him underground. Unable to get pills legally, he had to get them through various drug dealers.

So as a matter of economics he began looking into heroin, which cost roughly 20 percent of what a prescription painkiller cost on the streets, and provided a much more potent high.

Will said many of his friends got hooked on heroin after addictions for months or years to opioids.

It's the story of many kids across the country. Heroin use exploded as a byproduct of the nationwide prescription painkiller epidemic from the mid to late 2000s.

Suburban teens and early 20-somethings got hooked on opioid pain medications, often drugs they found in their parents' medicine cabinets or at a party or through a drug dealer. Others got hooked on opioids after major medical procedures such as surgeries.

They saw that heroin was cheap, more readily available in certain cases and produced a better high. So they switched.

To understand how an insidious drug problem took hold of one of the most affluent counties in America, it's helpful to start with the root of the problem.

Since the supply for Oxycontin was going down, prices were going up. On the street pills were sold for as much as $1 a milligram. Eighty dollars for one 80 milligram painkiller doesn't sound as enticing as $15 for a stronger heroin high. So Will began using heroin.

Will had a traumatic accident where a car hit him as he was crossing the street in Reston.

"My hip just snapped in like eight different places," said Will.

He laid in the bed, awaiting pain medications.

"I woke up in the ICU and said I need pain medicine. I was screaming it."

He had some issues receiving pain medications, but his tolerance was so high from abusing pain meds that, "whatever they gave me was not working. It would wear off very quickly."

Will ended up telling the nurses and doctors his tolerance was high because of his history.

Nurses told him "I'm only allowed to give you so much. This could knock out a rhino, what I'm giving you."

Doctors called in a pain management specialist, who finally assessed the amount of medication he needed and worked to get the pain under control.

After a time in the hospital he was forced to leave, he says, because he had no insurance.

He began using heroin. He started by snorting, until one day he decided to inject the drug on the recommendation of his friends.

From that point on he was "chasing the dragon," trying to capture the feeling of his first high.

After a bit of time using heroin himself, Will decided it was more economical if he went and bought the drugs himself and started dealing. He had the connections and knew enough people in the area to support himself.

Loudoun gets its heroin entirely from elsewhere in the country. There are no poppy fields in Purcellville or Leesburg, no cutting facilities. Heroin doesn't get manufactured here, or distributed in bulk through county lines.

Loudoun is the end point for heroin. It's delivered in a small bag, sometimes straight to a customer's townhouse door. Sometimes it is snorted through a nasal cavity. Often it's heated on a spoon or in a bottle cap, sucked into a syringe and finally plunged into a vein.

Dealing in Loudoun

Dealing heroin in Loudoun County is no Hollywood fantasy or gangland horror. It's mostly 20-something white men passing around a hat so one can make a run to D.C. or Baltimore for the group's latest fix.

In Baltimore, some dealers are so hungry for new customers, Will says, they provide "testers," sample packages of heroin.

On days when he had no money, Will would grab a few testers, like a family trying a new brand of cereal at a Costco demo stand. As part of his operation Will recalls routinely making as many as three trips a day to Baltimore or D.C. to buy heroin, mostly delivering to friends and associates who live in townhomes in Loudoun.

Lt. Jaime Sanford, a member of the Tactical Enforcement Unit at the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office puts it this way:

"When you talk about our heroin distributors here in Loudoun County, the majority of them are not true dealers as you would think of them. They are mainly users. If you're a user, you typically hang out with other users. So you find 10 of your friends, all 11 of you use heroin. Inevitably what occurs is somebody in the group has to be the one to go get the heroin. They're the one that runs the risk of getting pulled over, getting stopped, you know, or if it's an undercover operation, of getting picked off by the police"

This loose organizational structure means it's hard to cut off the head of the drug dealing snake, because all that's in Loudoun is the tip of the tail.

Because local dealers are really just glorified bagmen, they can be easily replaced by another friend of the drug dealer if caught and incarcerated.

So the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office restructured its operations last year in an attempt to help other jurisdictions capture high-level dealers in Baltimore and Washington D.C.

The unit was re-named the Tactical Enforcement Unit. Members of that unit began working with regional and federal law enforcement groups, some deputized as federal agents for the express purposes of the unit.

One deputy was re-assigned to a leadership role with the Northern Virginia Gang Task Force.

Another went to work on projects in Loudoun, Prince William and Fairfax counties. Another deputy strictly works narcotics cases.

Sheriff Mike Chapman explains that his team needed to reshuffle as a matter of gaining more leverage in the fight against heroin and other narcotics.

The Sheriff's Office has little authority outside of Loudoun County's borders. The problem, Chapman explains, is that all the heroin is coming from outside the county.

So certain members of the sheriff's task force are deputized by the federal government to have authority outside the county for certain cases related to their task force.

Emergency Medical Services has seen the effects of a heroin explosion as well.

Jose Salazar, deputy chief of Loudoun Emergency Medical Services, said he has noticed an increase in the number of calls related to heroin overdoses.

EMS has also seen an increase in the use of Naloxone according to Salazar. The drug, which is also sometimes called Narcan, from the first letters of NARCotic and ANtagonist, is an opioid antagonist used to reverse the affects of heroin overdose.

Last year EMS administered Narcan 131 times, compared to 89 times from the year before. Loudoun EMS has been using the drug for more than 20 years - however last year's usage was at record level.

'The medicine cabinet'

At an April 3 Heroin Operations Team press conference, Chapman mentioned that the Sheriff's Office does not carry the drug, but did indicate that they're looking into implementing the use of Narcan in the future.

Education is another way to prevent heroin overdose deaths. During separate events in 2014 Maj. Richard A. Fiano gave a series of 13 presentations to parents on drug usage at all the Loudoun County high school clusters.

A common question he was asked by parents was 'where are they getting these drugs?'

"The answer is initially, through the medicine cabinet," said Fiano talking about prescription painkillers. Some people also buy prescription drugs from illegal online pharmacies.

"A lot of the prescription drug issue is from these online pharmacies," said Fiano.

So he says it's important to be aware that opioids can "really come from anywhere."

Major health care providers and drug rehabilitation clinics strongly advocate that households routinely clear their house of unused prescription drugs, especially opiates.

The Sheriff's Office has also had multiple prescription take-back days, where deputies collect old and unused prescription drugs from willing households.

Some think empathy might be the best solution. Besides law enforcement, treating current addicts could go a long way to cutting down on deaths.

Will says he would like to see more programs extended to heroin addicts.

"There are no real good programs around here. I felt like there was no help around here," Will said of the time when he was thinking about reaching out for help.

He explains that heroin addicts are a segment of the population that needs the most help in treatment, but is simultaneously one of the least likely populations to have health insurance, making most treatment programs even further out of reach.

There are three Oxford Houses currently operating in Sterling. Oxford houses are drug-free residences run by current and recovering addicts.

Inova's Cornwall campus is also available to addicts, but many of those patients are sent to the Fairfax campus.

Will and his brother, each of whom began rehab at 20 years old, left the county to seek services, going to Winchester, and in another case to Fairfax to seek treatment.

He even tried to get clean on his own terms, once buying Suboxone from a street dealer because the product was so expensive.

Only a little over a year clean now, Will is legally buying Suboxone.

Will was told by the doctor who prescribes him Suboxone that roughly nine in 10 intravenous addicts relapse.

"Until you hit your rock bottom, you are not done. And people die because of it. People just don't hit their rock bottom, they keep using. I think that's why so many people are dying out there today. They're enabled by their parents and their parents give them money, and they can just go get heroin every day, until they die. It's just become a very bad problem around here."

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