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Baby talk
Our top officials warn of predators seeking to addict our children to drugs, but itís the adult users we should be worrying about

FOR THE RECORD, roughly one of every 65 Boston teens has used heroin, whereas about one in four lives in poverty; one in four has been driven by a drunk driver in the past month; one in six carries a gun or knife; one in seven has starved him- or herself to lose weight, and one in nine has attempted suicide in the past year. (These figures come from the National Centers for Disease Control ó see ó with the exception of the poverty-rate figures, which are provided by the Boston Public Health Commission.) But the mayor and the governor want to talk about how heroin is destroying our kids, so letís talk about that.

At the three-hour New England Governors Summit last Wednesday, the speakers repeatedly invoked "the children." Governor Mitt Romney focused on the addiction rates of 12- to 17-year-olds, and spoke of heroin dealers loitering around playgrounds. Mayor Tom Menino spoke specifically about heroin dealers targeting children as young as 12. Karen Tandy, administrator of the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), described heroin addicts 13 and 14 years old. John Walters, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, called school drug testing a "magic bullet" for solving the drug problem. Connecticut governor John Rowland and others invoked children in arguing against the medicinal use of marijuana.

The hyperbole and outright misinformation ran thick. Tandy, elaborating on how heroin is "clearly readily available" to youth, mentioned the arrest of a Connecticut dealer less than 1500 feet from an elementary school ó roughly the distance across the Longfellow Bridge, or from South Station to Post Office Square; even Fenway Parkís famed peanut-tossing vendors would have a tough time completing that transaction. Menino claimed that distributors now decorate drug packaging with bright colors and cartoon characters in a deliberate attempt to hook kids as young as 12. This became the central image of the day, and the lead in the next dayís Boston Globe.

Yet these images are actually age-old street-distributor branding. "You may have a glassine bag with a tiger paw, so if you go out looking for heroin you might ask for the tiger paw because you perceive it as being stronger or of higher purity," explains Anthony Pedigrew, spokesperson for the Boston office of the DEA.

Indeed, not everyone in the field of drug-law enforcement agrees that drug dealers are out there doing everything in their power to ensnare children. "I donít think we have a Joe CamelĖtype of campaign here to get the 12-year-olds hooked," says Assistant District Attorney Brian Cullen, who heads the narcotics and asset-forfeiture unit for the Suffolk County District Attorneyís Office. "They donít have to ó thereís a big enough market already."

Thatís what the kids themselves say. "I hear some kids saying ĎIím doing weed Saturday,í" says Shanna Ridley, a 13-year-old student at East Bostonís Umana/Barnes Middle School. "Theyíre just talking. I say, ĎWhy you bugging about something youíre not even doing?í"

According to Menino, heroin dealers in Boston are targeting Ridley with sophisticated marketing techniques. Yet she hasnít seen it. Neither has Cassandra Diaz, 16, who attends East Boston High School. "Mainly weed, and more alcohol than weed," she says of drug use among her schoolmates. Ecstasy is around, and she sees some kids starting with cocaine. "Heroin ó thatís crazy," Diaz says.

Boston is not a teeming cesspool of drug use among children. In fact, adolescents and teens in Boston are far less likely to use drugs than are kids in the rest of the state, in similar cities, or in the country at large. Thatís true generally, and of heroin specifically: 1.5 percent of high-school students in Boston have used it, compared with three percent in Massachusetts, 3.1 percent nationwide, and between 2.4 and three percent in Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Philadelphia, and San Diego. Just 263 Bostonians under the age of 18 entered publicly funded substance-abuse programs last year, accounting for barely one percent of all admissions ó and most of those were for alcohol.

In addition, Boston high-school students are no more likely to have been offered drugs at school than are their counterparts elsewhere. Drugs are not in the school hallways; pushers are not hanging around the schoolyard or harassing pupils as they walk home.

No, the kids are alright in Boston, which is much more than one can say of the cityís adults. They are in serious trouble, if anyone cares.

HEROIN IS FAR more addictive, corrosive, and destructive than other drugs in popular use. "My big issue is people who are trying out heroin just like other drugs," says Cullen. "Itís simply not an experimental drug." Heroin-overdose deaths in Boston have risen sharply, to 66 last year ó and they were all adults. But the number of lives ended by heroin is nothing compared to the many lives destroyed by it: roughly 9000 heroin addicts are admitted each year to publicly funded treatment centers in the city.

Itís also true that heroin admissions are declining. But thatís not because there are fewer addicts. Itís because budget cuts have reduced the number of spaces for addicts seeking treatment (see "Sentencing Addicts to Death," News and Features, May 23). In September, 120 drug and alcohol addicts who contacted Bostonís central intake phone line asking for help were turned away because no space was available, says John Auerbach, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission. Thatís up from 30 just six months earlier. "People are unable to find a bed or a drug-treatment program, so they are continuing to use," Auerbach says.

"The level of usage is clearly tied to the availability of funds for drug treatment and prevention," agrees Suffolk County sheriff Andrea Cabral. Thatís causing a big problem for Cabral: the countyís holding jail is at double capacity because judges who would ordinarily send offenders to detox are now ordering them to jail when no detox facility is available.

At last weekís summit, Romney spoke of the need for prevention and recovery services, but itís hard to take his newfound concern seriously. After all, this is the same man who not only pared down drug-treatment programs, but personally eliminated Medicaid coverage of emergency and second-stage detox services, and then ended the MassHealth Basic program. Taken together, the governorís efforts have forced a dramatic reduction in prevention and recovery programs.

Making Romneyís negligence and deceit all the more lethal is the way supply and demand on the street are driving down the cost of heroin ó leading to more users. A price war has been going on, triggered by the rise in popularity of club drugs, such as MDMA (ecstasy), ketamine, and GHB. The market is working itself out; as heroin importers have flooded the Boston area, ecstasy has dropped from $25 or more per tablet to $15 or less, and ketamine goes for $20 to $40 a bag. The hot pharmaceutical OxyContin retails for $20 per 20-milligram tablet and $40 per 80-milligram tablet. Recently, the extremely harmful drug methamphetamine, once a virtual non-factor in Boston, has also begun to infiltrate the area. (You may recall the infamous Dr. David Arndt ó he of the patient-left-on-the-operating-table episode ó getting caught with 56 grams of crystal meth in a piñata last August.)

As a result of such competition, some heroin now goes for just $4 for a bag of between 1/100th and 2/100th of a gram ó enough to get two people high for the evening. Thatís the low end, however, and available only if youíre buying in some bulk. Typical prices in Massachusetts this year have been $15 to $25 a bag, according to DEA reports; Cullen of the Suffolk DAís Office says that in Boston itís cheaper, running about $6 to $10.

Of course, one drawback to doing heroin, even at discount prices, is that you have to stick a needle in yourself, which most casual users do not want to do ó at least initially. But that problem, too, has been worked out: really pure heroin ó say, 85 percent and up ó can be snorted and is now widely available. These days, South American ultra-pure heroin accounts for most of whatís circulating in Boston, according to Cullen. Law-enforcement officials say that OxyContin users in particular, already accustomed to crushing and snorting those pills, are eager to switch from a drug that costs up to $40 a hit to one that goes for as little as $4. Cocaine users sometimes go that route as well, although powder cocaine, at about $12 a hit, remains relatively inexpensive. Moreover, cocaine is logistically difficult for the end user, who generally must shell out at least $40 for, say, a quarter-gram and then must hang onto whatís left, making it relatively easy for authorities to find. Thatís all the more reason to do heroin instead, which you can buy in individual-dose bags for a few bucks, and then roll up and hide in the knot of a shoelace.

But heroin is really brutal, and most users eventually require substance-abuse treatment. Unfortunately, soon after making the switch from some other drug to heroin, two big things happen. For one, the body quickly craves more and more of the drug. Where cocaine, OxyContin, and ecstasy users usually remain at a steady level of use, heroin users rapidly escalate to five-, 10-, and, eventually, 20-bag-a-day habits. Not only is heroin highly addictive, but users quickly learn how inefficient snorting is for delivering their high. The vast majority who start out snorting (vowing theyíll never inject) end up with a needle habit, according to Cullen.

DESPITE THE FACT that cheap, plentiful heroin is ravaging a small but growing number of adults, the legislative and political focus on drugs is aimed squarely at hyping fear over "the children." Letís just state for the record that thereís no question teenagers can find the drugs they want if they go looking. But at the same time, they have little trouble avoiding them. Menino and Boston police commissioner Paul Evans should take great pride in what theyíve done to keep the cityís kids off drugs (or at least off drugs more serious than marijuana). The cityís expansion of after-school programs is probably a big part of it, as is its success in driving the drug business off public street corners.

The mayor and police commissioner should urge the rest of the state to adopt these approaches. Instead, they seem intent on exploiting the publicís fear of predatory dealers luring children to Satan. The misguided speechifying about drug-packet logos was just the latest example. Two months ago the duo held a press conference in South Bostonís Independence Square Park on M Street to declare their support for a bill that has languished for years, with good reason, at the State House. It would take the current mandatory-minimum 30-month prison sentence for intent to distribute within 1000 feet of a school zone and 100 feet of a park, and extend it to 1000 feet of any school, library, park, or playground. The proposal is silly enough for outlying towns like Woburn, whose representatives have touted the bill. But in Boston the bill would turn the entire city into a mandatory-minimum drug zone ó entirely eliminating the distinction between dealing near and far from children, for purposes of punishment, that is the intent of the law. When Menino argued in favor of expanding mandatory-minimum sentencing, he pointed to a known heroin-dealing spot not far from the park on M Street, which lies beyond the current zone. According to reports in the Boston Herald and Boston-Bay State Banner, the mayor spoke of protecting the helpless young people of the park. But kids in the park are not approached by dealers, who are out of sight making their connections in the industrial lots across East First Street. If the pushers did approach, they would enter the existing 100-foot mandatory-minimum zone ó giving Evansís cops the opportunity to invoke the mandatory prison time. In other words, the current law is working ó if its intent is to keep drug dealers away from children and teenagers.

The original school-zone law was part of a sweeping anti-pusher effort that has succeeded to the point of frustration for law enforcement. That is, the drug-dealing industry has retreated out of sight, causes little commotion, and is thus very difficult to locate and stamp out. "Police have driven dealers off the street corners," Cullen says. "Itís not the same scene of a guy waiting on a street corner with the stash nearby."

This is, one would think, a good thing. "I havenít seen that [heroin] has become the sort of problem crack was, when people would shoot each other over a street," says Cullen. Cocaine continues to cause these sorts of problems, as evidenced by the recent indictments and arrests of feuding gang members in the Bowdoin Street and Uphams Corner sections of Dorchester and Roxbury. Those cocaine-distributing gangs are allegedly responsible for shootings dating back to 1995.

Drug dealing in most of Boston today ó particularly for heroin ó generally uses a "beep and meet" system, according to both Cullen and the DEA. The buyer pages his contact, who calls back with a place and time for the exchange. Usually the location is inside an apartment or in a parking lot. Outdoor selling, then, consists of quick, transitory exchanges arranged minutes beforehand. Indoor selling is even harder to stop, as it requires warrants for search and seizure.

Street selling persists in some areas, particularly the South End and Dorchester. As a result, more arrests and seizures take place there, and among the cityís African-American population, even though white residents account for the bulk of the use. "Itís attributable to the physical plant of the surroundings," says Cabral. "As opposed to getting into apartments in South Boston, you make arrests where itís easy to make arrests."

The only possible reason the mayor and police commissioner could have for wanting to expand the current law is to throw more dealers in prison for a longer periods of time by making them eligible for mandatory-minimum sentencing. (A 2001 Boston University School of Public Health study of drug-dealing cases in Fall River, New Bedford, and Springfield found that despite the law, almost 80 percent of cases occurred within 1000 feet of a school, and were thus eligible for the mandatory minimum.) Regardless, Sheriff Cabral doubts that additional punishment is much of a deterrent to begin with. "People have a much more casual attitude toward doing time," says Cabral.

Letís be fair. Mayor Menino is right to worry about the cityís children. But heís wrong to put so much emphasis on the drugs they may do now. More than two-thirds of those seeking treatment for heroin addiction in Boston are between 30 and 49. They are the parents of the children Menino talked about at last weekís drug summit. When those adultsí lives collapse to drugs, their children suffer. And just like children of alcoholics and physical or sexual abusers, they are learning behavior they will emulate later, as Cabral points out.

So for now, the kids are alright. But give them another five or 10 years and see where they are then.

David S. Bernstein can be reached at dbernstein[a]

Issue Date: October 17 - 23, 2003
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