The use and distribution of heroin is more rampant in Ventura County, especially in its most affluent cities, than it has ever been before, officials say.

“It’s crazy right now,” confirmed Det. Sgt. Mike Horne, Ventura County Sheriff’s Narcotics, West County Street Team.

“It’s all over the place, but the big rise right now is with young, affluent white kids.”

Typically, Horne said, heroin distribution in Ventura County has been predominant in more poverty-stricken areas. But in West County, wealthy communities in Ojai and Camarillo have lately seen a big push, he said. In the past couple of weeks, Horne’s unit has completed three distribution cases and has about 40 ongoing cases, all heroin-related.
East County is no different. The drug is finding kids in their early teens to early 20s, and in seemingly pleasant neighborhoods like those in Thousand Oaks, said Det. Sgt. Robert Thomas, Ventura County Sherriff’s Narcotics, East County Street Team. “Heroin doesn’t discriminate against a demographic,” said Thomas, who has noticed a significant rise of heroin distribution throughout the East County.

But the addiction to heroin may be coming directly from mom and dad’s medicine cabinet at home.

“The increase in heroin use is directly related to prescription drug use,” said Patty Wallace, a certified addiction treatment counselor at Palmer Drug Abuse Program of Ventura County. The Camarillo-based outpatient clinic works primarily with county teenagers who have been arrested and referred to the program for education and treatment classes.

In a 2010 national survey of eighth, 10th and 12th grade students conducted by the National Institutes of Health, six of the top 10 illicit drugs abused by 12th-graders in 2009 were prescribed or purchased over the counter. The survey also found that teens generally get these prescription drugs from friends and family, whether shared, bought or stolen.

“The quantity of kids addicted to pills between the ages of 15 and 20 is huge. More now than I have ever witnessed before,” Wallace said. “They’re not old enough to buy alcohol, so they search for pills.”

“Absolutely,” confirmed Horne about the rise in heroin being linked to the accessibility of prescription drugs.

For example, “Kids are secretly taking their parents’ OxyContin and then developing an addiction to opiates,” said Horne.

Pain-relieving pills prescribed by doctors, like Vicodin, Norco and OxyContin, are opiate derivatives, with street values ranging from $5 to $100 a pill, depending on the milligram dosage, police officials said. The higher the dosage, the more expensive, which is how those addicted in the affluent communities easily get hooked on an expensive habit.

Yet, when consumed regularly, a tolerance builds and the need for more potency develops, which is how heroin becomes attractive.

“Young people who misuse or abuse Rx pain killers may believe that prescription drugs are ‘more safe’ than ‘street drugs,’ ” said Dan Hicks, Ventura County Behavioral Health manager, Alcohol and Drug Programs Division. “But users may find themselves moving to heroin as they move down the road, based on a number of factors, including price.”

And soon, as Wallace put it, young kids become “unconscious drips on the wall.”

Heroin enters the county predominantly by way of delivery services out of San Fernando Valley and operated by Mexican nationals, said Thomas. The service is a sophisticated ring functioning like a dispatch center with a number of delivery drivers working in shifts for the “boss,” with specific opening and closing hours, even lunch breaks.

“When users get hooked, they become friends with other users, and 818 phone numbers start spreading around,” Thomas said.

The distribution ring grows once it is sold into local communities, because of the money interest. An ounce of black-tar heroin will generally sell for $600, suggested Thomas. It then gets divided up into grams and sold for $60 a gram, which yields close to $1,200 in profit.

“We communicate with the people we arrest and get intelligence from them,” said Horne. “We’re working our way up the chain to disrupt the organization.”

Horne cited, for example, the arrest earlier this year of Jose Antonio Medina Arreguin, aka Don Pepe. Medina is charged with the shipment, delivery and distribution of heroin throughout California, including Ventura County. It is alleged that Medina’s smuggling operation moved more than 400 pounds of heroin across the Mexican border each month for more than a three-year period.

There have recently been police-sponsored community forums with parents, educators, clergy members, county behavioral health and probation staff discussing prevention methods and rehab possibilities. But ultimately, prevention begins in the home.

“Lock up your medications,” said Thomas.    

shane@vcreporter.com