“Joe,” a recovering opiate addict, has been sitting ringside as the flow of heroin into the Tri-State has escalated in recent years.
After reading a recent Sunday edition account of a Detroit resident who was arrested in the act of dealing heroin and spoke to local investigators about the drug trade between Michigan, Ashland and Huntington, Joe — who gave an in-depth interview to The Independent on the condition his real name not be used — said the informant told officers exactly what he was supposed to say.
“What he told police, they told him,” he said. “The stuff, the heroin, follows the bus in three cars. If he makes it through, that’s just the icing on the cake. There’s about a pound of heroin in each car and the cars are always non-descript, not flashy and with nothing to attract attention. They give the police no reason to pull them over.”
Joe said he became an incidental part of the local heroin trade as a result of the people he knows and his own history with pharmaceutical painkillers prescribed by doctors for a back condition.
“I’ve known some of these people all the way back to the nickel bags in high school, so when ‘other interests’ started to appear, I knew about it,” he said, explaining he first became aware of heroin coming to this area through people at the Federal Correctional Institution at Summit.
“I knew guards out there, and I knew inmates out there,” he said, explaining he eventually met visitors from Detroit who asked unusual questions, which he gave little regard at the time.
“Until about five years ago, you never heard of heroin around here. They started asking about people using needles and I didn’t think anything about it,” he said, explaining some of those same people were also around when the supply of pharmaceutical opiates began to dry up.
Noting the similarity of oxycodone and heroin in practical use, he said they asked the obvious question: “Why don’t we just bring you some real heroin?”
As local opiate addicts and users continued to seek the substances, dealers began to offer “an either/or” with the option of paying more for pills or less for a larger amount of heroin, he said. The stigma of heroin for many users, especially those with well-established oxycodone dependence, seemed to wear off quickly.
“People would say, ‘Hey, I’m not a junkie. Oh, wait, I’m just not a heroin junkie.’”
Trying to earn his own way in the world of local narcotic transactions, he “made a couple of runs” to deliver heroin with a friend, although he did not anticipate their deliveries to include a nursing home.
“That alarmed me. We were taking it to patients, not staff,” he said. “I’ve been shocked by both who was selling it, and who was consuming it.”
People in the business of selling both pills and heroin quickly made note of their customers’ inclinations, habits and pay periods, he said, allowing considerable manipulation.
“Everybody knows when everybody gets paid and when they get what they get. I’ve shown up places and there were five people there waiting for me, waiting to get paid,” he said with a shake of his head.
“Nothing scares a junkie more than being dope-sick,” he continued, noting he had been prescribed pain-relieving drugs normally reserved for people dying of cancer. Others with prescribed pain medications often formed small networks to support each other by trading or selling pills, he said, resulting in a constant string of transactions as they collectively battled the reality of running out of pills and getting sick.
When he found a doctor he felt good about (“One whose waiting room wasn’t full of sweating, twitchy junkies”), he didn’t count on a pharmacy technician with a phone and a scheme of their own.
“They have your name, address, phone number and account information. It’s just a perfect set up for a home invasion,” he said, before noting he was eventually able to consult with a surgeon who looked at his medical history and immediately asked if he did, indeed, have cancer. Due to the drugs prescribed, and effects over time including weight loss, the surgeon initially declined to even attempt a procedure which might help him, he said.
Around the same time, he and another musician with a high tolerance and a large appetite for opiates had essentially developed a schedule to play different clubs and bars according to the availability of drugs. Despite the perception of addicts as stupid people who don’t realize what they are doing to themselves and others, he found the opposite to be true.
“I think we had a unique awareness of it. We would sit around and talk about the people we knew who were dead from it. These are not stupid people. You don’t do it long if you’re stupid,” he said.
A ‘magic bullet’
Acknowledging the problems others have experienced using the drug Suboxone to kick their opiate habits, he said the controversial compound was a great help with his own quest to become sober, along with his wife’s cooperation and support.
“When I quit, I found I had 12 hours in the day that I did not know what to do with because I had been spending that time looking for (drugs). For me, Suboxone was that magic bullet because it took away the fear of dope sickness and the urgency to have it,” he said. “What it didn’t address was the pain. When you are in pain like that, you will do anything to make it stop, even if it is just temporary.”
Addiction is highly misunderstood, he said, citing an abundance of former pill abusers who now use heroin, but once stood fast by their conviction to “I would never use a needle,” until faced with the prospect of becoming dope-sick.
“I know from first-hand experience, a junkie will justify everything,” he said.
He believes the flow of heroin, as well as methamphetamine, in this area is more driven by the pure inspiration of greed than by addiction itself.
“It’s not about the drugs at all. It’s all about the money. People can be addicted to anything. Right now, it happens to be heroin and meth. Heroin is just filling a void Purdue Pharma (the manfacturer of OxyContin) left,” he said.
Anyone with cash, or especially things such as guns to barter and trade with, would likely be able to score heroin locally with a little effort, he said.
“It is a sort of secret society. It’s like the Freemasons — you have to know the handshake,” he said, describing the hand-to-hand nature of the local heroin trade.
“But, when the cash gets low there is always a lot of bartering for guns and that adds to the criminal element. They will have a list of certain guns they want and fill those lists and take those guns back up north. But, we don’t pay as much attention to that part of it because it isn’t in our own back yard,” he said.
TIM PRESTON can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2651.