Heroin in Nevada: A growing problem with frightening potential

Published: Mar. 9, 2016 at 6:46 PM PST
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The phone rings all too often at the local drug prevention organization Join Together Northern Nevada these days. On the line, a distraught parent who's just made an increasingly common discovery.

"They find out all of a sudden 'Oh, my gosh my child is using heroin. How did I not see that,'" says Executive Director Jennifer DeLett-Snyder.

That discovery carries a special shock.

"To the parents right now who grew up in the '60s and '70s, the heroin addict looked a lot different. It was kind of the strung-out person by the side of the road with needle marks on their arms."

And now it's their young son or daughter.

Most parents are ill-equipped to recognize the warning signs. They don't know what to look for. Changes in behavior or friends could be chalked up to typical teenage angst. Persistent flu-like symptoms--cold sweats, coughing-- could be easily dismissed.

"Parents always think 'Oh, my child is sick' and take them to a regular doctor for a prescription when the child is actually going through withdrawal."

Discovery of a syringe would be alarming, but a little balloon containing the drug or a bit of tin foil, a common pen, its innards removed, might not raise any alarms.

"If your tin foil is missing you're not thinking 'What is my son doing with my tin foil?'" says DeLett-Snyder. "You might not realize your son took your tin foil and why would you think tin foil would be used in drug use?"

You see these days, least in the early stages, heroin is smoked, using a hollowed-out pen to inhale the fumes as a bit of the drug is heated on a piece of foil.

Today's heroin addict is most likely a young adult. The largest group of them entering treatment fall into the age group of 21 to 25. And it's likely they started down that path--not through a so-called gateway drug like marijuana. It's most likely the path started in the family medicine cabinet with its ready supply of prescription pain killers.

"OK, you go through high school, you're taking your parents' painkillers," says DeLett-Snyder. "And then you're out of high school on your own now. How are you going to get that high?"

You'll discover it in heroin and--guess what?--out here it's cheaper.

And here's the scariest part: One in 5 Nevada high school students admits to abusing prescription drugs. When they encounter heroin, their young brains are already hard-wired for addiction, putting them at greater risk and making eventual recovery even more difficult.

So, it's a growing problem with an even greater potential and it really does come back to what Jennifer DeLett-Snyder would argue is the over prescription of legal pain killers. That's the gateway drug.

There's a lot of help including support groups for parents of addicts.

And don't miss this Friday night's special edition of 20-20, "Breaking Point. Heroin in America." That's at 10 o'clock on ABC.