DEA agent paints not-so-pretty picture of ‘big H’

Professionals worry that pure, cheap heroin is becoming drug of choice


Staff Writer

 The problem in New Jersey is the low cost and purity of the heroin. “Instead of the classic way of injecting the heroin, because it’s so pure, young people are able to snort it.” — Nick Calleo The problem in New Jersey is the low cost and purity of the heroin. “Instead of the classic way of injecting the heroin, because it’s so pure, young people are able to snort it.” — Nick Calleo Drug use is on the rise across the state again, and this time the drug of choice is heroin.

Call it slang, smack, horse, mud, brown sugar, junk, black tar, big H, dope or skag, the results are the same, an addicted body and a destroyed life.

“I love what I do, but sometimes the job feels overwhelming,” said Nick Calleo, special agent, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, speaking to a crowd of over 150 recently at the main branch of the Monmouth County Library, Symmes Drive, Manalapan.

“Sometimes it feels like you’re using a bucket to empty the ocean. We have our buckets, and we’re trying.”

The agent believes that getting the word out to the public is key to fighting the drug problem.

Calleo became a DEA special agent in July 1999 and was assigned to the Newark office. He has conducted numerous investigations targeting international drug-trafficking organizations in the New Jersey and New York area.

Armed with a projector and a remote control switch, the agent showed a one-minute preview film.

“The latest import is not the BMW in the driveway,” said the film’s narrator. “It’s a needle full of heroin in a teenager’s arm. Heroin has wormed its way out of the inner city across the manicured lawns and two-car garages into homes like yours. One in 10 kids is on heroin. It’s cheap to buy and easy to get and potentially can kill children even before parents notice the first warning signs.”

There is a heroin problem in New Jersey, Calleo said. The problem in New Jersey is the low cost and purity of the heroin right now.

“It is very high purity, and it’s been attracting new users,” the agent said. “Instead of the classic way of injecting the heroin, because it’s so pure, young people are able to snort it.”

By snorting the drug and not having to use a needle, there is the perception that you don’t become addicted, Calleo said, noting that the purity levels have been as high as 98 percent.

“We have the highest purity of street-level heroin probably in the world,” he said. “You can’t buy better street-level heroin anywhere.”

Heroin is a white powder in its purest form, but its color ranges from white to dark brown, according to the level of impurities or additives. It’s a highly addictive, rapidly acting opiate, which makes it a pain reliever. It also has some depressant qualities, which relieve anxiety and tension. It’s produced from morphine, which is produced from opium.

“Morphine is a 10 times more powerful pain reliever than opium, and heroin is a two to three times more powerful pain reliever than morphine,” Calleo said. “Heroin has a 10 times more euphoric effect, and that’s where the addiction comes, that rush, that good feeling, when you first take it.”

Calleo said it hurts your life, but you can’t stop it.

Being aware that your child may be involved in drug use is not always easy.

“This is a story about a woman whose child overdoses,” the DEA agent said.

“She blames herself for not realizing what was happening, particularly when all her spoons are missing in her kitchen. She realized later that her child was using the spoons to cook the heroin, so it could be injected.”

Drug addicts spend their days trying to find their next fix, Calleo said. All they do is try to find money to buy drugs and then move on to the next fix.

Calleo offered some statistics about the widespread drug:

• There are approximately 90,000 hard-core users of heroin in New Jersey.

• 50 percent of all treatments at facilities are heroin related.

• 4 million U.S. residents over the age of 12 have used heroin at least once.

• 76,000 teens, ages 12-17, have used heroin at least once.

• 474,000 young adults, ages 18-25, have used heroin once or more than once.

• 2 percent of high school seniors have used heroin at least once.

“Today it’s on the Internet,” Calleo said. “There’s really no control. I went to an Internet class and they basically said the Internet is the Wild West. There’s really no controls on it. You can get what you want, when you want it. … It’s just very difficult to control right now.”

Calleo also described the dangers of amphetamines, inhalants, prescription drugs, and over-the-counter drugs like cough medicines, antihistamines and Coricidin, a cough and cold medication.

“Kids are not taking one Cori-cidin,” Calleo said. “They’re taking 72 [at a time] to get that high. Kids won’t go in and buy the drug because [it’s] expensive. They’ll go in and try to steal them to get as much as they can.”

Calleo said if taken correctly, the medication can be a useful product, but when someone is taking 72, it’s a big problem.

It’s not about a handful of junkies shooting up in urban ghettos anymore, although that problem still exists.

In Monmouth County, the annual number of heroin treatment admissions is estimated to be between 1,500 and 2,000.

Calleo also reviewed the short-term effects of heroin.

“When you first take the drug, there is euphoria, that rush, that good feeling,” said the agent. “All your anxiety and tension go away. You disassociate with reality and what’s going on around you. Everything seems great.”

After the initial period wears off, you go into what is called “nodding,” the agent said.

“Heroin is a central nervous system depressant, which means it slows your whole body down. Your mental functions become clouded. … The pupils in your eyes constrict and breathing may slow. There’s nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, depending upon how often you take it.”

Calleo said if there is too much in the system, the body can shut down and you just stop breathing.

Long-term use can affect the emotions and pleasure sections of the body; breathing and heart rate are affected; and pain messages are blocked from entering the brain. It basically changes the way your body works.

“You become not only physically addicted, but mentally addicted also,” said Calleo. “You need the drug to feel normal.”

Today, much of the buying and selling takes place early in the morning by people who are on their way to work, Calleo said. They need to purchase the drug early so they can use the drug before they begin work.

Withdrawal occurs from four to six hours after the last use, and if you don’t get another dose, flu-like symptoms begin to kick in. Those same withdrawal symptoms can last four to six days.

“There are drugs out there that can get you through withdrawal symptoms, but that person must seek treatment.

“For general illicit narcotic use, the largest user group is under 26 years of age,” the agent said. “It’s the area between 16 and 25 [where the risk is highest].”

Calleo said, “A lot of times people can be helped. Overdoses can be reversed. They don’t have to die if they are given first aid quickly, but that doesn’t always happen.”

The agent also said that parents must make an effort to get involved with their children.

“The main reason why kids don’t take drugs is because they don’t want to disappoint their parents,” he said, stressing that parental involvement is vital.

Most important, the agent said, if there is a problem, seek treatment and don’t deny the issue by saying, “Not my kid.”