Suburban drug scene - new methods, new dangers
Do you know anyone "nodding" or "rolling?"
One and two generations ago, teens and young adults who experimented with drugs were getting "stoned" or "tripping."
If you were a flower child of the '60s, the stuff your children may be taking is not the stuff you thought got you harmlessly high, drug researchers say.
Now, dealers on Chicago's West Side refer to heroin as "blow" or "blows." People wasted on heroin are "nodding," as in "nodding off to sleep" and people experiencing the long bursts of energy and heightened sensory perceptions that accompany Ecstasy use are "rolling."
(The term "rolling" originally came from the roller-coaster effects that came from taking pills or capsules that frequently contain a variety of toxic and illegal substances, said Carol Falkowski, a drug researcher for the federal government. She also is director of research communications at Hazelden Foundation, a nationally prominent drug and alcohol treatment organization.)
Drive down just about any side street in the West Side neighborhoods of Chicago and groups of men and women congregate, waiting for suburban men and women and other customers with dime bags of heroin at the ready. Some shoot dice on the sidewalk to pass the time. They call out "blows, blows" and "rocks" for crack cocaine as some possible customers do a drive-by.
Scott McDonald, a 24-year-old recovering heroin addict from St. Charles, said suburban kids drive in off of the Eisenhower Expressway, take the Metra line in from Geneva or hop off the el's Green Line. You spend however much money you can muster and do the drug in some bushes or a back alley or "crotch it" to conceal it from the cops, he said. Chicago police officers break up one group of dealers and three or four more are ready replacements, McDonald said.
The dealing is less blatant at a rave inside a small west suburban club.
While techno music blares through speakers, one young adult checks out the logo of the pill he's about to swallow. The pill could, as Falkowski noted, be mistaken for a Lucky Charms cereal marshmallow.
Some groups offer to test pills for users to determine whether they include the drug formulation buyers are seeking, but Falkowski said the tests often do not reveal what other drugs may present in the pills or capsules.
"We are dealing with a drug manufactured in labs without quality control," she said. "It's a real crap shoot."
Obviously, there is no regulation of the heroin people buy either. The increased purity of today's heroin means it provides a greater high, which drives demand for it even more. It also means a heightened overdose potential because users can snort or inject the same amount as usual, Falkowski said, but a purer batch of heroin than they are used to can kill them.
"Your first time may be your last time, that's how powerful it is," said Tom Carnevale, a recovering heroin addict from Lisle. "It doesn't matter how you do it. It doesn't matter where you get it or who you think you're getting it from because you don't know how good it is until you've already done it and by then, it's too late."
Carpentersville resident Jasmine Martinez, 18, learned a similar lesson about club drugs when her former boyfriend died after taking what he thought was Ecstasy. Instead, he took a lethal amount of PMA, a more potent form of the synthetic hallucinogen.
When you're rolling, something Martinez said she's done a handful of times, "You don't even feel like yourself. People play with your hair and give you back rubs and hand rubs.
"I know the feeling is so cool. It's so cool," she added, "but my friend died from it. Do you know what you're putting in your mouth?"
Martinez said she doesn't take club drugs anymore.
The lure of the forbidden; the feelings of euphoria and peace; the sense that others have done the same or worse with no harm. All of those things are driving teens and young adults with disposable income to experiment with club drugs and heroin.
Persuading them the dangers are real remains the challenge for authorities.
"It's Russian roulette," said DuPage County State's Attorney Joe Birkett, who worked to strengthen penalties against club drug dealers after 18-year-old Naperville resident Sara Aeschlimann died from a PMA overdose in May 2000.
"There's nothing benign about club drugs," noted Falkowski.
Effects on users
Ecstasy is such a new drug that there has not been a lot of research conducted on it. However, some studies have shown sustained brain damage among users after several years. Ecstasy may deplete serotonin, which regulates mood, so that users may suffer long-term depression and memory loss, the research shows.
Club drugs may seem to be less addictive than heroin, but Falkowski said they, too, can hook users. She knows of teens and young adults who quickly have had to take more Ecstasy or the depressant GHB, gamma hydroxybutyrate, to get the same level of high they did in initial uses.
In addition to the danger of death from overdosing, heroin is highly addictive. A U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency spokesman said many users feel the psychological compulsion to try it again after just one ingestion. Physical dependency on heroin can develop within weeks, but varies from user to user, the spokesman said.
Those who progress to injecting with needles risk contracting blood-borne illnesses and are prone to heart disease, Falkowski said.
Heroin users also quickly suffer from severe withdrawal illness when they don't take the drug consistently.
Several suburban users described severe symptoms including shakes, hot and cold sweats, vomiting, diarrhea, sleeplessness and deep bone aches.
"It's like prison because you have to have it," said Kim Stachon, a 36-year-old former heroin addict and mother who was raised in Long Grove.
Stachon, who asked that her maiden name be used in these stories, first started experimenting with drugs when she was a teen. Her heroin addiction, like many, progressed to the point where it controlled her. "It's not like, 'Should I smoke a joint today?' It's not about getting high; it's about not being sick."
Heroin arrests are less frequent in the suburbs, but suburban police officials increasingly are working to set up club drug dealers. Club drug arrests are becoming as commonplace as capturing Internet sex offenders.
State legislators already have boosted prison times for people caught with smaller amounts of club drugs, putting it on the level of heroin, cocaine and the other, more established hard-core drugs.
Still, more must be done, agree authorities and recovering users.
Prosecutor Birkett believes the key is to raise awareness and educate users, potential users and their loved ones.
"It takes a continuous, repeated effort," he said. "Parents are listening. We need to reach them all."