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Recovering Santa Rosa addict describes descent into heroin use

Published: Saturday, December 8, 2012 at 3:09 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, December 8, 2012 at 3:09 p.m.

Plenty of middle-class kids in Santa Rosa got addicted to prescription pain pills in high school, but it wasn't like committing crimes or shooting heroin — that was for street junkies, said O.G., a former Montgomery High School student.

The serious crimes and heroin, those would come after high school.

“My story's not unique,” said O.G., 23, a lifelong Santa Rosa man who now is successfully working through a court-ordered drug rehabilitation program.

Meeting recently in a downtown coffee shop, he told his story of high school addiction to pills and how it led to crimes, arrests, shooting up heroin and, eventually, a near-fatal overdose.

Now, he has one final chance to clean up his life. If he fails, he knows he will be sent to prison.

His story illustrates the new face of heroin addiction in Sonoma County. Like O.G., a growing number of heroin addicts are teens and young adults who come from middle-class and upper-class neighborhoods, according to local law enforcement and public health officials.

O.G. was about 15 and a sophomore when it all started. The youth was growing up in Bennett Valley, had three close friends and enjoyed playing Little League baseball.

“It started out at Montgomery, dabbling in the pills,” said the young man, who asked to be identified by his initials.

One of his friends introduced the foursome to Vicodin pills. The friend's mother initially had given her son some but then cut him off, so he began stealing them from her, said O.G.

When her prescription changed to OxyContin, a more potent synthetic heroin-style narcotic used to relieve severe pain, the four friends began dividing up one pill each day, continuing to go to class and play sports.

Then one pill became two pills. And four friends became more friends and the knot of Oxy users amongst eastside Santa Rosa teens expanded.

Bennett Valley seemed to be the epicenter, he said. The teens were replacing drinking or smoking pot with the pills, thinking “they are just pills. They're not drugs,” said O.G. “It was what the cool kids were doing.”

But the addictions grew and if they couldn't find the pills in family medicine cabinets, they needed money to buy more. Some had it. Others began stealing pills and belongings from family, friends and strangers.

Late in his sophomore year, at age 16, O.G. was kicked out of Montgomery for a marijuana violation. He briefly went to Piner High, where he had “no friends and no pills.”

He took the proficiency test to be done with high school.

By the time he was 17, he and his friends began making daily trips to San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood, where they could find someone to sell them OxyContin, $25 for an 80 mg pill.

“White, middle-class kids, they knew what you were there for,” he said.

They'd buy about 30 pills, some for them and some to sell for $35 or $40 each back home so they'd make money to go back to San Francisco's “pill hill” and repeat the cycle.

Sometimes they made two trips a day from Santa Rosa to San Francisco. Sometimes they were midnight runs.

“I wanted it every day. I didn't think how deep it would take me,” O.G. said.

“We pretty much managed to look good from the outside. But we were all using heavily,” he said.

The drug runs to San Francisco or, later, Oakland, went on for awhile. The trips were always dicey. “Sometimes they robbed us, sold us fake stuff,” he said.

At least one friend began carrying a handgun. O.G. said he didn't carry but he started wearing a bulletproof vest.

“We were the bad-ass gangsters,” he said, explaining their mentality. To demonstrate how the pain pills had taken over his life, he even got a tattoo, inking the molecular structure of OxyContin into his skin.

But they hadn't hit bottom.

“There was still a stigma with needles and heroin. We weren't that bad yet,” he said.

By about 2007 and 2008, the eastside OxyContin crowd had expanded across Santa Rosa and into several other Sonoma County cities and included gang members.

“The price kept creeping up,” he said. Many of them needed two or more pills a day, at $45 or so each. Friends began robbing friends and committing residential burglaries. Longtime friendships were destroyed over money owed. “It was literally an epidemic,” he said.

O.G. was 18. He'd tried a job, and Santa Rosa Junior College, but quit both. He was up to smoking 8-10 pills a day. “I was focused completely on getting more and using more.”

The next few years were a blur of getting the pills and selling the pills. But the problem had caught the attention of police and the risks increased. Trouble now meant jail, not a trip to juvenile hall.

In 2010, O.G. was arrested for theft, burglary and drug possession. There was jail time and some addiction treatment, but it didn't hold.

In late 2010, amid a nationwide epidemic of addiction to OxyContin, the company that makes the drug changed the formula. The pills went from 80 mg to 30 mg and the coating was altered, which made them tougher to smoke or snort.

While he was in jail in early 2011, the original Oxy pills were disappearing. The old formula pills, if they could be found, skyrocketed in price, often commanding well over $100 each.

The addicts looked for something else.

Santa Rosa dealers started offering heroin, pushing the idea that it carried the same effect and was much cheaper. A daily fix would be $20 to $40, he said.

Inside the jail, inmates talked about changing to heroin. Outside the jail O.G.'s friends were making the switch.

When he got out of jail that May, he switched too. First he smoked heroin, but he soon wanted a stronger high.

“I was scared,” he said, remembering the first time he asked a friend to shoot the drug into his veins for him.

Within a few weeks he was shooting it himself.

For the next six months he said his life “fell to pieces.”

“We lost any values or morals we had,” he said.

Overdoses began occurring and a couple of his old friends died from mixed drug overdoses.

On Nov. 1, 2011, O.G. bought three-tenths of a gram of heroin for $60 and drove to a Santa Rosa store where he could buy a syringe.

He went back to his car and injected two-tenths.

It was too much. A passerby spotted him and called 911 for help. O.G. said he otherwise might have died from the overdose.

When he regained consciousness he was on the ground next to his car.

“A couple of EMTs were around me and a police officer,” he said. “They used Narcan to bring me back,” referring to the antidote carried by paramedics for heroin overdoses.

Santa Rosa police had found more heroin in his car. After he was released from the hospital he went to jail.

O.G. was given the option of state prison for 3 years and 8 months or drug court, which included strict guidelines such as weekly court appearances, multiple weekly drug tests and mandatory counseling sessions.

If he fails the program he'll go to prison.

“Once I started to do the right thing my life became immediately better,” he said.

He's now working toward a career in the automotive industry. He has a serious girlfriend and an apartment. His family is behind him and he has a plan — which includes staying away from the opiate addiction that ruined the last six years of his life.

“One year ago no one wanted to spend their life with me. I had nothing to offer,” he said.

“I never thought I'd be able to piece this life together. I've got a good little life going on here.”

(You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com.)

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