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Heroin scourge cuts across cultural and economic barriers

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Beyond the shock and the sorrow of losing acclaimed actor Philip Seymour Hoffman to an apparent heroin overdose this month were the comments that he hadn’t looked like an addict.

But what does a heroin user look like? We have an image, a stereotype: gaunt, gangster, slovenly, sick. We think heroin attracts only the dirty denizens of life’s back alleys. Addicts, we think, are no benefit to society. They are the “other” people. They are not us.

This is a mistake.

They can be our neighbors, our co-workers, our friends. They can be people we never suspected had drug problems, people we may have tried to save.

Many of them look like us.

Many of them are our children.

One was Cameron Weiss, an 18-year-old poet from a good family and a football player and wrestler for La Cueva High School.

His addiction with heroin began – as many do – when his prescriptions for narcotic painkillers to treat various sports injuries ran out. Heroin was easier and cheaper to get than another bottle of Oxycontin or Vicodin.

Cameron’s first taste of heroin came in August 2009; his last came in August 2011 when his mother found him dead in his bedroom, fresh from rehab, a five-month out-of-state after-care program and jail.

“We like to think of addicts as the homeless, as prostitutes, not someone like us,” said Cameron’s mother, Jennifer Weiss. “What we see in New Mexico is that you can’t segment heroin use to certain parts of town. Addicts are in all schools, all parts of Albuquerque from the Far Northeast Heights to the West Side. It is everywhere. You want to see what a heroin user looks like? Hold up a mirror.”

WEISS: Was a football player, wrestler at La Cueva

WEISS: Was a football player, wrestler at La Cueva

You’ve heard the statistics before, but they bear repeating. New Mexico has the highest rate of heroin and prescription-drug overdose deaths in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Teen heroin use in New Mexico is double the national average.

Across the country, the number of heroin users has risen by nearly 80 percent from 2007 to 2012, the most recent year available, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Heroin overdose deaths nationally have jumped by 55 percent, according to the most recent data available from the CDC. Drug overdoses in general take more lives each year across the country than traffic fatalities or gun homicides.

Jennifer Weiss wasn’t content to wallow in her private pain. She founded the Heroin Awareness Committee after Cameron made the shocking admission in February 2010 that he was an addict. The group’s name has since been changed to Healing Addiction in our Community, or HAC.

These days, you can find Weiss and members of her organization up at the Legislature, chatting with lawmakers about the need for a transitional living center for recovering addicts, especially adolescents.

Their hope, she said, is to persuade lawmakers to commit money from their capital outlay funding to pay for the center.

Although New Mexico has several short-term treatment facilities – including Albuquerque’s Turquoise Lodge Adolescent Substance Abuse Unit, the state’s only fully medically staffed program, which since it opened last summer has treated 100 youths from 18 counties across the state – the state lacks any longer-term transitional living centers. Cameron had to be sent to Tucson for a five-month program there, Weiss said.

“What has been most frustrating is there really hasn’t been an improvement with our treatment system,” she said. “Most facilities now keep you no more than 20 days, if that, and 20 days is not enough time to get someone through recovery. That’s why people have relapse after relapse.”

What is needed are detox programs at least 60 days long followed by up to a year in a residential treatment center, she said.

But what is also needed, she said, is more education on the dangers of heroin, more understanding that addiction is a sickness and a scourge that knows no socio-economic boundaries.

Hoffman’s much publicized death is just the latest heroin-fueled fatality to attract attention. It won’t, Weiss said, be the last.

“It’s really unfortunate that someone has to die in order for the issue of heroin addiction to come to the surface again, but that’s just the way our society works,” she said. “Something tragic has to happen before change happens. Unfortunately, when it comes to heroin, that tragedy happens all the time. It just doesn’t make the news.”

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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