As I am walking through the streets of Las Vegas today I see a familiar sight that I see so often in my hometown of Miami. The aftermath of a community raped by the prescription pill epidemic and left wide open to deal with the unavoidable Heroin epidemic that is now retaking its firm grip of the sick.
The mirror told Jeff Thompson, then 18 years old, all he needed to know: He saw stick-like arms and exhausted eyes, a young body on a downward spiral.
Consider it the climax in Thompson’s young life story, which includes marijuana use by age 12, prescription pills two years later and heroin by 16 or 17. He can’t quite remember.
“I was so tired of getting high just so I could act normal,” said Thompson, now 23.
Fearful of a federal case against him, Thompson checked into rehab July 10, 2007, weighing only 110 pounds despite his 5-foot-11-inch frame. He’s been sober ever since.
In the five-plus years since his recovery, however, Thompson said he has seen prescription drug and heroin use grow, forever altering or ending the lives of his friends who didn’t escape the addiction.
“Unfortunately, most of my friends passed away or are in jail,” he said. “There’s not really an in-between.”
Thompson’s age demographic is under the microscope of Clark County authorities who have noticed a spike in the number of young people — those age 23 or younger — dying from using prescription drugs, heroin or a combination of the two.
Total deaths in that category in Las Vegas have steadily declined since 2008, but deaths among the younger age bracket have increased, said Detective Burnett, who works undercover in Metro’s narcotics section. (For safety reasons, she asked for her first name to be omitted.)
Last year, 31 people age 23 or younger died from using prescription drugs or heroin, according to Metro. Twenty-two people in that age range died in 2010.
“Our prescription drug abuse is out of control right now,” Burnett said. “Clark County is huge when it comes to pain-pill addiction and prescription overdoses.”
In September, Burnett briefed Metro’s executive staff about the situation, which came to the forefront after officers in the northwest valley arrested burglary suspects who were addicted to heroin and stealing to cover the cost.
Drug users typically transition from prescription painkillers — such as Lortab, Vicodin or OxyContin — to heroin, a cheaper opioid drug that affects the same brain receptors, producing a feeling of euphoria, Burnett said.
Vicodin or Lortab retail for $6 to $10 a pill on the streets, with OxyContin pills fetching as much as $30 per pill, Burnett said. In contrast, drug dealers sell black tar heroin for $10 per balloon. (Heroin dealers wrap the drug in tin foil and stuff it in multicolor balloons, Burnett said.)
“They deal their balloons all the way from Summerlin to Green Valley to Sunrise Mountain to the hearts of the poor areas,” she said. “It doesn’t matter. They will go everywhere.”
The economics of Thompson’s drug addiction ultimately led him to heroin, a drug he grew up considering among the worst. He had been spending more than $500 each week buying OxyContin pills and stealing along the way to fund his habit.
“It’s cheaper. It’s better. It’s easier to get,” he said. “It’s a no-brainer for a drug addict.”
Burnett said the community, especially school-age children, need more education about the dangers of prescription-drug abuse, particularly its powerfully addictive qualities and the consequences of using it recreationally. Illegal possession of prescription drugs is a felony, she said.
“You will go to jail for possession of a controlled substance,” she said.
It’s a message Thompson — now a hip-hop artist who has performed at venues such as the House of Blues — said he wished he’d heard as a teen dabbling in drugs.
“I had no idea, no education you could get addicted to pills,” he said.
Thompson says he makes a conscious effort to not glorify drug use in his music. He also has an administrative job at Solutions Recovery, the treatment center he entered for his addiction, and has shared his story with high school students.
“You have to fall in love with being sober instead of being afraid of the opposite,” he said.