Heroin - long consigned to an older group of addicts - is finding a younger crowd of users in Colorado Springs and elsewhere in Colorado.
Addiction researchers and drug counselors report increasing numbers of new and younger users of the heroin who are smoking or inhaling the drug rather than injecting it.
They shun needles out of health concerns and in the mistaken belief that they won't become addicted, counselors said.
They say cases like the arrests of five people in a heroin ring accused of supplying students at Cheyenne Mountain High School in December is no fluke.
"I've seen a lot more kids over the last few years," said Kathy Romstad, a drug counselor with Memorial Hospital
She said they typically start out with prescription painkillers like Oxycontin and Vicodin, but then move on to heroin because it's a less expensive habit to maintain.
Romstad said she first started noticing the trend last fall, prior to the Cheyenne Mountain arrests.
"I started getting more referrals for black tar heroin," she said. "It just kind of exploded."
Romstad has been in the drug and alcohol counseling business for 32 years. In the past 17 years, Romstad estimated she worked with about six patients who were addicted to heroin. Now she sees more heroin cases than methamphetamine addiction.
In terms of drug trafficking seizures by law enforcement, heroin is a bit player in Colorado. Last year, the Drug Enforcement Administration reported seizing 3.2 kilograms of the drug, compared to 52.6 kilograms of cocaine and 24,089 kilograms of marijuana.
Sean Waite, who oversees the DEA's Colorado Springs office, said agents here have not encountered any dramatic increase in trafficking of black tar heroin from Mexico.
However, the DEA's fact sheet for Colorado does note that "various law enforcement and treatment indicators suggest that heroin availability and use may be on the rise in Colorado."
The Colorado Springs Police Department's statistics on heroin offenses showed a spike of 93 cases in 2006, but a decrease since then.
At Parkview Medical Center in Pueblo, the drug rehabilitation program reported having 4 of its 39 patients in recovery for heroin addiction in May 2009, including two teenagers. The previous May, it had none.
Hospital emergency rooms have reported a steady increase in the number of patients with heroin addictions since 2004.
In Denver, fatal heroin overdoses have been on the rise, peaking last year at 27 deaths.
Bruce Mendelson, a former state drug researcher who now works for the Denver Office of Drug Strategy, said the new heroin users are dramatically younger than what had been a typical heroin addict - 44 percent of the new users are between the ages of 18 and 24. More young women are using the drug. Females are 47 percent of the new users.
The new group, at least initially, shun needles. About 31 percent report that they smoke heroin rather than inject it. They smoke it by freebasing the drug in a pipe or tin and inhaling the smoke.
"They think if they smoke it, they won't become addicted," Mendelsohn said. Often they find out too late that they're wrong.
At Memorial, Romstad said about 75 percent of the youngsters she's seen wound up switching to needles before seeking treatment. All of them are males.
The youngsters she's seen often are high achievers in both sports and academics. Some told her they modeled their behavior after movies such as "Trainspotting" or "Requiem for a Dream," both of which have scenes of addicts.
What's especially troubling, she said, in terms of treatment, is that some of the young heroin users are more difficult to treat, she said.
"They enjoy it," she said. "They don't have a desire to quit."
what is it
Black tar heroin is the predominant type of heroin found in Colorado according to the DEA, although brown tar heroin is also dealt. It is imported into the state by Mexican drug organizations that typically also deal in cocaine.
Black tar heroin has a street value of between $80 to $120 per gram depending on purity but typically is sold in 0.25 gram balloons for about $25.
Local resources for people struggling with heroin addiction include:
Memorial Health Systems/Medical Network in Colorado Springs
Parkview Medical Center in Pueblo
Parker Valley Hope in Parker