The lunch hour rush is pretty much over when the waitress is able to grab a minute for some small talk. The casual conversation turns to her knowledge of heroin in the Duke City, and her mood goes from bubbly to somber.
With clanging silverware and the din of conversation in the background, she gazes at nothing in particular. “Yeah, I've known quite a few people from high school who got hooked on heroin while they were in school,” she says. “Many of them started using prescription drugs, and it just got out of control."
She graduated in 2008, a year that saw the number of heroin-overdose deaths jump—and the age of users drop, according to the New Mexico Department of Health.
Local, state and federal law enforcement agencies are aware of the problem. "We know there is a significant increase in heroin sales in Albuquerque, but we just don't know how much is out there," says Capt. Matt Thomas of the Criminal Investigation Division in the Bernalillo Sheriff's Office. "We tend to see different trends in drug prevalence, where it went from cocaine to meth and now to heroin."
The department has put the estimate of heroin sales in Albuquerque as high as $300,000 per day. While there may be some quibbling between the Sheriff's Office and Drug Enforcement Administration about the exact amount, there is a general consensus that the figure is not far off base.
Jennifer Weiss is the president of the Heroin Awareness Committee. She says the numbers are hard to pin down, and they're only an estimate: Users are reluctant to admit to the problem, and medical reports don’t always paint an accurate picture of an overdose victim. Weiss says data from the Office of the Medical Investigator may indicate the cause of death is natural causes, heart failure or suicide. “It’s tough to get a true statistic of the problem,” Weiss says.
“It has saturated our public schools here, and people have no idea how much.”
Bob Barnes, program director for Recovery Unlimited
Keith Brown, assistant special agent in charge of the DEA office in Albuquerque, says the city is part of a national trend. Brown transferred here from Tennessee where the problem is also prevalent. “Heroin is on the upswing,” he says. “Where it used to be seen primarily in the South Valley, it is now all over the city.”
There’s a new face of heroin abuse, says Duncan Sanchez, a narcotics agent with the Sheriff’s Office. It’s no longer a strung-out junkie in some rundown flophouse. While these are still plentiful, heroin users and dealers are in every corner of the city. They are all races and ages, and they come from a variety of economic backgrounds. Capt. Thomas and Sanchez say no neighborhood is immune.
"We have conducted operations in the South Valley, Four Hills area and Northeast Heights," Sanchez says. But what's alarming is the decreasing age of typical Albuquerque heroin users. Thomas says the drug has permeated the halls of high schools.
In April 2010, two young people died of overdoses within three days of each other, igniting outcry. Haley Paternoster, 16, attended La Cueva High School but transferred to the Media Arts Collaborative Charter School where she was a sophomore. She died at UNM Hospital on April 9, 2010. Three days later, Nathan Weatherfield, 20, also died of an overdose. He dropped out of Eldorado High School before his senior year but later completed his GED and attended CNM.
At a presentation at Sandia High School in early May, Heroin Awareness Committee President Weiss asked a group of seven students if they knew someone who abused prescription drugs. She says all of the hands went up. She then asked if they knew anyone using heroin. All of the hands remained in the air, she says.
Bob Barnes is the program director for Recovery Unlimited, a drug and alcohol treatment facility on Eubank. He expressed his exhaustion in the uphill battle. “I stopped going to funerals for my own mental health,” he says.
“Is there violent crime in Albuquerque because of the cartels? Absolutely. There is definitely an international influence as to what is going on here.”
Capt. Matt Thomas of the Criminal Investigation Division in the Bernalillo Sheriff's Office
He says there’s still an element of denial among school officials and parents about how bad the heroin problem is. “It has saturated our public schools here, and people have no idea how much,” he says.
Barnes says the increase in heroin use over the last three years is highly unusual. It's a phenomenon he says he hasn’t seen in 26 years as a drug counselor.
Narcotics agent Sanchez says the teen trend is not surprising. Parents and educators used to think marijuana was the gateway drug to hard narcotics, but now the gateway drug is found in many home medicine cabinets. He correlates it directly to the explosion in prescription drug abuse, primarily OxyContin, a potent opiate-based painkiller.
And in the wings are the Mexican cartels, which have essentially dominated the flow of narcotics into Albuquerque, according to both the DEA and Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office.
“Is there violent crime in Albuquerque because of the cartels? Absolutely,” Thomas says. The heroin traffic is dictated not only by street demand but also economic factors on both sides of the border. “There is definitely an international influence as to what is going on here.”
On May 3, state and federal law enforcement agents surrounded a house on a quiet Westside block and arrested eight people, including six Mexican nationals. Law enforcement officials say they ran heroin distribution like a call-in fast food restaurant, complete with delivery services. What Bernalillo County narcotic agents found in the house was a $30,000 per-day heroin enterprise—not to mention several semiautomatic weapons, ammunition and copious amounts of meth. “The drug market in Albuquerque is huge, and there is a lot of money being made here,” Sanchez says.
Black tar heroin is produced in Mexico and distinguished by a gooey brown appearance. It's processed using an antiquated method of mixing heroin and morphine derivatives. The method is cheap, fast and efficient—all components of a cost-effective and high-margin enterprise, says Brown.
On the street, the drug is cheap and more accessible than the prescription drugs many launch their habit on. The purity can range from 80 percent to 20 percent, and the high it gives can last between four to six hours, says the DEA's Brown.
What concerns drug counselors like Barnes is the lack of “street sense” many teens exhibit when they make the transition from OxyContin to heroin. He says teens can easily get a $20 balloon of black tar heroin and get a few injections out of it—but run into trouble with half that dose.
“The kids make the transition from OxyContin to heroin by smoking it at first, because they think if they shoot it, they are a junkie,” Barnes says. “That period is very short when the urge increases for the quick high.”
Sanchez says the May raid put a temporary dent in the local heroin trade, but he's pragmatic and knows the victory is short-lived. “We’ve been doing this a long time and know that by the time we catch up, someone else or something new will come in,” he says.
Strategically for the Sheriff’s Office, the goal is to keep an eye on the street dealers but go after the bigger fish.“We have a good impact on the street level but want to target the mid- and high-level traffickers."
Barnes may feel besieged by the numbers of teens he sees hooked on heroin, but he says he’s not defeated. The first step, he contends, is for the community to collectively admit there’s a problem. “There is still a large element of denial. People don’t want to believe it. People don’t hear what I hear, but they need to."