OVERLAND PARK, Kan. - A drug that used to be characterized by a ‘junkie’ stereotype is seeing resurgence in Johnson County youth. Overland Park reports a 450 percent jump in heroin overdoses between 2007 and 2011.
Shellie Cooper knows that story all too well.
Her son’s battle with addiction led from one drug to the next until he landed in a hospital bed, dead of an apparent overdose. While medical personnel were eventually able to resuscitate him, she'll never forget that moment.
“I found some needles in his room,” she recalled. Her son was 17.
That discovery changed their lives forever.
“That's just heart breaking in itself to think ‘Wow, they're actually doing this to themselves,'” she said.
Cooper thought her son was a clean-cut teenager. He was a Blue Valley West football player, had plenty of friends who came to the house regularly and was a joy to be around at home.
“I don't know if it's because you don't want to see what's going on,” she paused. “He fooled me so much. He really did."
Now Cooper knows what was really going on.
“Mushrooms, acid, everything, at 14," Cooper added.
She said alcohol and other drugs led to prescription pain pills and, eventually, heroin for her son.
Then the unthinkable happened -- her son overdosed. She will remember that phone call for a lifetime: Her son was dead.
"He had died that night, and the doctor brought him back. I kept telling him, ‘God has a plan for you. Otherwise, he would have let you go a while ago,'" she remembered.
Regret about those several years still lingers in her heart.
“Yeah, there are a lot of regrets where you think, ‘What could I have done differently?’" she said. “I did the rehabs, I did the counseling, the treatment. I was doing everything I thought was right,”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show the drug killed almost twice as many Americans than a decade ago. A third of those deaths were people under 30 years old.
Young people have become the new face of heroin. Where the common heroin user used to be junkies comfortable with needles, teens of all social classes are using it now.
“There's only a stigma between users who say 'Well I never put a needle in my arm.’ Of course, they smoked meth for 20 years,” Drug Counselor Gail Dean said.
“Addiction knows no boundaries, there are no rules. There is no selectiveness. It's an equal opportunity illness," she added.
Dean was an addict herself.
“It's the old been there, done that. Yes, I know how you feel," she explained.
However, for the last 25 years, she’s used her experiences to help others understand their addictions and fight back. Right now, she works at the Kansas City Community Center with a program through the Jackson County Drug Court.
"Every use thereafter is seeking that first euphoria and so we're always chasing the high and that goes with any drug," she explained.
Prescription pain pills and heroin are both opiate based drugs. So, police find users switch back and forth between the two. However, as drug companies alter their recipes to make crushing pills impossible, many addicts are choosing heroin.
There are several reasonings behind that. First, shooting up brings a faster high. New prescription pills turn into a gel when they are crushed; making drug-abusers to only take the pills orally. And secondly, heroin is cheaper.
"If you didn't have a valid prescription and you tried to buy Oxycontin on the street, it'd be about $80 a pill which is quite a bit, especially for a heavy user. For half the price --$40 -- you could get a gram of heroin for use," explained Officer Gary Mason with the Overland Park Police Department.
While many of the drugs start in the inner city and are sold to residents of the Kansas City suburbs, Mason believes heroin is a problem everywhere. It does not discriminate.
“With cocaine, everybody thought that was the drug of choice, especially with the affluent Johnson County. We were seeing a lot of the cocaine. But, it's coming around where heroin is just as usually used in our schools and our young people,” he said.
The recent increase in heroin overdoses has taken the department by storm. They continue to train new officers on drug-related behavior and have created an educational DVD for school-aged children in Johnson County.
Mason said each overdose death weighs on officers’ hearts.
“The officers have been in these schools for years. They know the families, the brothers and sisters. And, for us, it is a personal nature," Mason said.
The same is true for Cooper. Her story is now a mouthpiece for parent action in the war against drugs.
“It's not just here. It's everywhere and it is way bigger than, I think, we want to believe that it is,” Cooper said.
Cooper’s son currently holds a steady job and has been clean for several months. She beams with pride about his recovery.
Warning signs of heroin abuse in teens could include sweating, mood swings and drowsy behavior. For most, intervention and treatment is the only way to stop the cycle of addiction.