Pubdate: Sun, 20 Dec 2015
Source: Sacramento Bee (CA)
Copyright: 2015 The Sacramento Bee
Author: Sam Quinones
Note: Los Angeles-based journalist Sam Quinones is the author of 
"Dreamland: The true tale of America's opiate epidemic," (Bloomsbury).


In Affluent Simi Valley, Houses Are Large, the SUVs Gleam and Many 
Kids Are Addicts

A Christmas Tree in a Suburban Shopping Malls Helps Tell the New 
Story of Heroin

Widespread Painkiller Prescriptions Helped Fueled Opiate Addiction and Death

Town Center in the Los Angeles suburb of Simi Valley is not a 
remarkable place as malls go.

A freeway runs alongside it. There's a Buffalo Wild Wings, a movie 
theater, and a motorized train that takes toddlers on rides around 
the mall. Since last Saturday, a large Christmas tree covered in 
ornaments stands in the middle of the shopping center, next to a Starbucks.

A group of parents that goes by the name Not One More put up the 
tree. Each ornament contains a photograph, of each of 70-plus 
teenagers and young adults. Each kid is white, and each died from 
overdoses of heroin or prescription painkillers.

I've visited Simi Valley during the last couple of years because it 
has become part of Southern California's - and of the country's - 
Heroin Belt. Simi Valley looks nothing like what you'd expect from a 
town thus described. It is a conservative suburb of ranch-style homes 
and shiny SUVs. Three-quarters of Simi Valley's 126,000 residents are 
white. The town is home to a lot churches. Many Los Angeles police 
officers live here; one of them is on the City Council.

Yet alarming numbers of kids here have overdosed and died. Pills and 
heroin are reportedly easy to obtain at high schools. The city has 
put heroin prevention ads at its bus stops. Not One More started in 
Simi before it grew to include similarly well-to-do additions to the 
Heroin Belt: Thousand Oaks, Moorpark, Agoura Hills. Rehab clinics in 
Simi and its neighbors report huge new numbers of addict clients, 
virtually all of them white.

America faces an epidemic of addiction to heroin and narcotic 
painkillers. Fatal overdoses surpass deaths due to traffic 
fatalities, and opiates are a big reason why.

Also striking is that, in this drug epidemic, not just a large 
number, or even most, of the new addicts are white. It's that almost 
no one else is getting addicted to them. That could change, of course.

America faces an epidemic of addiction to heroin and narcotic 
painkillers. Fatal overdoses surpass deaths due to traffic 
fatalities, and opiates are a big reason why.

But in three years researching and writing "Dreamland," my book about 
this epidemic, I met one only non-white person who'd grown addicted 
to opiates. My observations are echoed by cops and drug counselors, 
Narcotics Anonymous organizers, and public health nurses across the country.

As a reporter for almost 30 years, I long ago saw that drug abuse 
often follows racial or ethnic lines. Crack devastated the black 
community - though many users were of different races. Meth, years 
ago, was the purview of low-income whites, especially bikers and 
motorcycle gangs - though that drug has since seeped into the Latino community.

But during those years, I've seen no drug scourge affect one racial 
group this exclusively and for so long. While it first ravaged 
low-income Appalachia, opiate addiction proceeded to also invaded 
largely white suburbs like Simi Valley, which are presumed to be 
doing quite well.

A few factors may contribute to this.

During the outbreak of heroin of the 1970s, heroin swept through 
Latino barrios and black neighborhoods. That was long ago. But I 
believe communities hold a collective memory. Those communities saw 
its devastation. In East LA, for example, heroin was a big part of 
the Latino gang world there - the reason a lot of guys went to 
prison, and a lot of people died.

Heroin has been a special kind of anathema there ever since. In 
Mexican Spanish, tecato, the term for "junkie," is laced with extra 
abhorrence and disdain, though it's unclear that Latinos hold heroin 
in any less disrepute than does the white community, particularly 
parents of the current generation of addicts.

Another explanation is that as doctors began to prescribe opiate 
painkillers more aggressively in the late 1990s and into the 2000s, 
they did so mostly among white people. A study or two shows doctors 
feared prescribing these pills to African Americans and Latinos would 
lead to massive diversion of the drugs into the black market. Of 
course, that's exactly what happened when doctors overprescribed 
these pills to whites.

In fact, in the eternal debate over whether demand or supply is at 
the core of a societal drug problem, this epidemic shows the answer 
clearly to be the latter. Massive overprescribing led to a rising sea 
level of pills nationwide. Before long, pills were in the medicine 
cabinets of families all over this country, and thus easily 
accessible to a new generation of relatively privileged drug user.

These factors in combination might explain why so few new opiate 
addicts come from other ethnic or racial groups. They don't do much 
to explain why whites  a group that life has generally treated pretty 
well, particularly in the last 20 years - have turned in such large 
numbers to a group of drugs used, of all things, to numb pain.

After years of researching this epidemic, this is the one question I 
still find no convincing hard answer for.

That's why I spoke recently with Krissy McAfee, who lives in the town 
of Santa Clarita, another deceptively well-manicured part of our new 
Heroin Belt, not far from Simi Valley. Krissy is a mother and 
grandmother whose son died of an opiate overdose and is now raising 
her daughter's children.

Pills and, to a lesser extent, heroin feel as common in Simi and 
Santa Clarita as cellphones and social media, and as difficult to get 
away from. Krissy said she saw a connection - a soullessness entwined 
in dope and gadgets.

"We have created a generation who feel they are owed things, instead 
of having to work for things," she said. "They don't have to pay for 
their insurance or their phone.

"Living in Santa Clarita, my kids were surrounded by these people. My 
kids used to get so mad at me because I didn't have the money. I made 
them pay the gas, insurance, the monthly payments, maintenance for 
their cars. They couldn't understand it."

Too many kids, especially in the white community, are given too much, 
protected from too much, and thus haven't learned to navigate life's 
difficulties, she believes.

After years of researching this epidemic, this is the one question I 
still find no convincing hard answer for. As I wrote the book, I 
seemed to encounter issues far deeper than those related to simple 
drug supply and the underworld. The story became less a crime tale 
and one about who we were as a country.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom