To those naïve about addiction, the words “heroin” and “suburbs” may not seem to go together. But in fact, it’s the perfect marriage – a marriage made in hell.
It’s a connection fueled by ample resources, stigma and easy access to the drug hubs of major cities. Some of the nation’s most severe heroin epidemics can be found in affluent suburbs: places like the Cape Cod region of Massachusetts, much of New Jersey, Lake, DuPage and McHenry counties surrounding Chicago, Oakland County outside of Detroit, the Simi and San Fernando Valley areas near Los Angeles, and Cuyahoga and Lorain counties outside of Cleveland, just to name a few.
How did this happen? First, wealthy teens for years have thrown drinking parties while their trusting parents would jet off for weekend getaways. But in the past decade, the drinking parties also have led to children raiding the medicine cabinets of the party throwers.
What’s more, with many well-to-do children involved in athletics, injuries have led to prescriptions of pain pills. Parents with ample resources and good insurance plans have made fueling painkiller habits brought on by legitimate injuries an increasingly easy pursuit.
“In the wealthier areas, these young adults that have unlimited access to money from their parents or their wealthy families, up to a point, it is very easy to hide,” Sadie Mansfield of Birmingham, Mich., arguably Detroit’s most upscale suburb, told CBS Detroit.1 “Just about everybody I know has become addicted to heroin. And I have lost so many people because of this terrible drug.”
That includes her sister, four close friends and numerous acquaintances.
In the end, wealthy kids from “good” families end up becoming hooked on heroin, which is cheaper than painkillers, by the time they reach their college years and money is tight.
Unfortunately, their addictions have found a best friend called stigma. While no family wants to talk about their child becoming addicted to heroin, well-to-do families often feel held to an even higher standard. When problems with addiction aren’t addressed and acknowledged early, they snowball into even bigger problems, including deadly overdose.
The good news is that parents even in the wealthy communities are finally speaking out, and they are directing their resources to founding organizations to get their children into treatment and well again.
Shooting Up in Front of Mom One Last Time Before Rehab
In an extraordinarily compelling report, the BBC’s Linda Pressly follows Mason Butler, a 26-year-old in the wealthy Cleveland suburb of Avon Lake, to rehab.
“Every time, you have to hope. But when it doesn’t work out, you get more discouraged than the last time,” he tells Pressly as he’s waiting for his mother to pick him up and take him to treatment. “It kind of sucks when you just feel like a chronic relapser.”2
Butler’s story is typical. He took his first painkiller at age 16, prescribed by a doctor for a wrestling injury. “It hit the mark,” he told Pressly. “That was the high I was looking for.”
Butler admits to Pressly that he arranged to meet a drug dealer on his way to rehab. His mother doesn’t realize it until he shoots up in the car after stopping at a fast-food restaurant. “I didn’t realize it,” she tells the reporter. “It’s very stressful. I just want to get him there. And it’s nerve-wracking because I didn’t bring the naloxone kit.”
Naloxone, also known as Narcan, is a drug used to bring back those who overdose from the brink of death when they stop breathing.
Learn more on the history of the opioid epidemic.
In the same BBC report, Lisa Wolanski explains how her son, DJ, overdosed at age 24. He had been in and out of rehab, she said.
She remembers him begging her to have his wisdom teeth out. “I said to him, ‘You only want your wisdom teeth out so you can get pain meds, Daniel.’ He said, ‘That’s not true.’ But for sure, he wanted that medication.'”
Wolanski also lives in Avon Lake. She said rehab attempts failed again and again. She felt her son never stood a chance because the sophisticated dope dealers kept targeting him. “The boys wear those stretchy bracelets (with inspirational recovery slogans like ‘Dopeless Hope Fiend’) and go to the mall,” she told BBC. “And that’s what the dealers look for.'”
Like so many parents are doing now, Wolanski revealed her son’s heroin addiction in his obituary. It’s becoming a common practice among families who don’t want other parents’ children to suffer a similar fate.3
Drug Dealers Cater to the Upscale Crowd
It’s true that the drug dealers have adapted to cater to upscale clientele in the suburbs. In an eye-opening book called Dreamland,” journalist Sam Quinones, a former Los Angeles Times reporter, describes how young men working in sugar cane fields in Mexico aspire to become well-mannered drug dealers to affluent suburbanites in the U.S.
“They park ordinary American sedans – nothing flashy, in order to avoid scrutiny – across the street from methadone clinics and offer free samples to addicts struggling with recovery,” writes Paul Grondahl of the Times Union of Albany, N.Y.4
Calling themselves “The Xalisco Boys,” they traffic the dope from Mexico to “affluent suburbs in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio and roughly two dozen states across America,” the Times Union reports. “The drug trafficking network is nicknamed The Xalisco Boys because the dealers are polite, friendly, customer service-oriented young men in their late teens and early 20s from a municipality in central Mexico near the Pacific Coast, with a population of just 49,000 people.”
They’re small town youngsters themselves, so to speak. “As far as Quinones knows, and based on interviews with local law enforcement agencies, The Xalisco Boys apparently have not yet set up a heroin operation locally,” the Times Union reports. “New York City is the primary source for local heroin – which the turf war-averse Xalisco Boys are careful to avoid.”
In a story published in the Naperville suburb edition of the Chicago Tribune, FBI agent Larry Lapp said, “The drug sellers are businessmen. They’re manipulators. They know the customer will keep coming back, and most are glad to give out free samples.”5
Parents, Politicians Begin to Speak Out to Squash the Stigma
In the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood in February, the city council took the drastic step of declaring opioid addiction “a public health emergency,” much like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has done for his entire state.
“We have facilitated several community discussions, but we need to do much more,” city council member Cindy Marx said as reported by Cleveland.com.6 “We have supported private investment in rehabilitation beds in our city, but are still facing a critical shortage of these beds. We commit more resources to cutting the supply of these drugs than any other suburb in our region, but we need to do more. We have applied and appealed for support from federal and state agencies, but we need to do more. By all reasonable standards, we are losing ground.”
When the mayor of Avon Lake, Greg Zilka, first brought up the issue of heroin overdoses to the city council there, “I did get a call from an individual who sarcastically thanked me for lowering his property values,” he told the BBC.
Although some people may want to believe their communities are bubbles insulated from addiction, such attitudes will only serve to keep the epidemic unchecked.
In the Naperville Sun story, Chelsea Laliberte told a crowd at a city council meeting that her brother overdosed from heroin in part because her family “was too in the dark to get help, but you don’t have to be like that.”
She told the crowd to remember that there is no single way for a person to become sober, and that treatment should be individualized and tailored to each person. “It’s never just one condition. Usually there’s a co-occurring disorder that goes along with it, like depression, psychosis, ADHD or bipolar disorder.”
Law Enforcement Aims for Rehabilitation Over Incarceration
Many of these suburban drug offenders don’t have previous criminal records. They need rehabilitation as opposed to being locked up, so law enforcement has tried innovative approaches to tackling drug-related crimes.
“All the research shows that locking up drug addicts doesn’t do any good and diverts valuable resources from fighting violent crime,” DuPage County States Attorney Robert Berlin told the Sun/Tribune. “We try to steer offenders to drug court, which has a 48 percent graduation rate. It costs $30,000 a year to incarcerate someone and $3,000 to $4,000 for the drug treatment program.”
The supply of heroin is seemingly endless, per the Philadelphia Inquirer. “An international heroin glut has helped tamp prices. Cultivation of the opium poppy had been suppressed by the Taliban, but it grew rapidly as coalition forces pushed into Afghanistan a decade ago. Meanwhile, drug cartels in Mexico and South America increased heroin production to make up for lower demand for legal marijuana in the United States.”7
Many parents of suburban children have used their own resources to start non-profit organizations aimed at providing education to parents in the suburbs and easing stigma. Those include Gary Mendell, who founded Shatterproof, and Melissa Sieber, founder of Not One More (as in not one more overdose death).
Quinones, author of Dreamland, writes in a piece for the Sacramento Bee about Simi Valley, not far from Ventura, Calif.. “It is a conservative suburb of ranch-style homes and shiny SUVs. Three-quarters of Simi Valley’s 126,000 residents are white. The town is home to a lot of churches. Many Los Angeles police officers live here; one of them is on the city council.”
Yet it is part of the country’s “heroin belt,” as he calls it. “Alarming numbers of kids here have overdosed and died. Pills and heroin are reportedly easy to obtain at high schools. The city has put heroin prevention ads at its bus stops.”8
In the Sun/Tribune story, mother Sandi Lybert says parents need to “go with your gut” when they think there something is awry with their child.
“I never planned on doing heroin,” said her son, Tyler. “But I had a need for friends, I thought it would make me popular, and I fell into a pattern of making wrong choices.”
1. McNeill, S. (2013, June 13). Heroin: An “Epidemic” in the Wealthiest Suburbs. CBS Detroit. Retrieved Feb. 8, 2017, from http://detroit.cbslocal.com/2013/06/13/heroin-an-epidemic-in-the-wealthiest-suburbs/
2. Pressly, L. (2016, Aug. 31). Smack in the Suburbs. BBC News. Retrieved Feb. 8, 2017, from http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-37224075
3. Heitz, D. (2016). Why More Families are Adding the Word “Addict” to Obituaries. DualDiagnosis.org. Retrieved Feb. 8, 2017, from http://www.dualdiagnosis.org/resource/why-more-families-are-adding-the-word-addict-to-obituaries/
4. Grondahl, P. (2015, Aug. 2). Sam Quinones tracks heroin from Mexico to the suburbs. Times Union. Retrieved Feb. 8, 2017, from http://www.timesunion.com/tuplus-local/article/Sam-Quinones-tracks-heroin-from-Mexico-to-the-6420781.php
5. Gibula, G. (2016, Sept. 22). Experts: Education, enforcement are key to fighting heroin in DuPage. Naperville Sun edition of Chicago Tribune. Retrieved Feb. 8, 2017, from http://www.chicagotribune.com/suburbs/naperville-sun/ct-nvs-heroin-forum-dupage-st-0923-20160922-story.html
6. Geiselman, B. (2017, Feb. 7). Lakewood officials call for state, federal help for “Opioid Epidemic.” Cleveland.com. Retrieved Feb. 8, 2017, from http://www.cleveland.com/lakewood/index.ssf/2017/02/lakewood_officials_call_for_ad.html
7. Sapatkin, D. of the Philadelphia Inquirer. (2015, March 8). Allentown Morning Call. Retrieved Feb. 8, 2017, from http://www.mcall.com/news/nationworld/pennsylvania/mc-heroin-overdose-suburbs-20150308-story.html
8. Quinones, S. (2015, Dec. 8). Heroin belt binds affluent, largely white suburbs in Southern California. Sacramento Bee. Retrieved Feb. 8, 2017, from http://www.sacbee.com/opinion/california-forum/article50203855.html
Written by David Heitz