Prescription painkiller addiction kills 40 people each day in the United States. In California’s Orange County, some prescription drug addicts are turning to heroin for a cheaper high. This growing problem appears to be hitting hardest in affluent communities around the state.
[On-screen text: Evan, 23]
Evan: My grandfather was dying of cancer, and he had just tubs of every pill you could imagine, you know? I didn't know what they were, and I started taking them and feeling the effects and reading the bottle and finding out what they were and then selling them at school. And yeah, it just went downhill from there.
[On-screen text: Anna, 22]
Anna: I was almost 400 pounds by the time I was 17.
I had gastric bypass, and then that’s when everything started falling apart.
They took my food addiction from me. I couldn’t eat anymore, and so I had to find something else to fill that void.
They gave me a few bottles of hydrocodone. I’d chug it. I wasn’t in pain. I took it to get high.
[On-screen text: Blake, 22]
[Drug rehab worker]
Blake: It was my high school football team. I just caught a pass, and it broke my middle finger. I got Vicodin and then got prescribed Percocet. I was taking them like I was supposed to until someone asked if I was “messed up on them.” I didn’t know what that even meant.
[On-screen text: Tish, 44]
Tish: The minute she walked in the house, she just sat on the couch and she started crying. My first thought is, oh my God, she’s pregnant. And then she told me she was doing OxyContin and so my first thought was what's that? She told me she smoked it, which then totally blew me away because I just couldn’t envision her doing that. It just didn’t fit.
[On-screen text: Suburban junkies]
[Prescription painkiller addiction kills 40 people each day in the U.S.]
[In Orange County, Calif., some prescription drug addicts are turning to heroin for a cheaper high. This growing problem is hitting hardest in affluent communities around the state.]
Evan: I think it has to do with Orange County being a nice area and them trying to keep it low pro, trying to keep it under the rug.
Maseratis and Lamborghinis and all that, beach front houses. And no one wants to see, oh, we have this perfect family with the white picket house and the Lab in the front yard. My kids are addicted to drugs.
I just started feeling sick when I didn't have them and it was just different. I didn't really know what it was at first, like I had no idea. I couldn't sleep and my legs were kicking and I was throwing up. And I was like what the hell is this? And then I kind of came to terms with I need drugs.
One person knew of a doctor, and they would tell another person, We'd pay in cash, they'd write us prescription, we'd go to pharmacy and we had our prescription for the month.
Sometimes I was going to three different doctors in one month.
I had a good amount, of like, 400 pills a month. And I was doing like six to seven a day. It was getting so expensive. I said I can sell these for $50 and go buy a gram.
[On-screen text: One gram of heroin: $50]
[Lasts three to four days]
[One OxyContin or Opana: $50-$100]
[Lasts a few hours]
A gram of heroin is the price of one pill. A gram of heroin could last you three or four days. One pill could last you a couple of hours. So the calculation is simple. Sell the pills you get, make money and get free dope.
Since I was little I knew heroin was the worst thing you could ever do. My father died of cocaine, I knew that. The biggest thing was using needles. I never said I'd use needles, and within months I was doing it all.
Anna: I didn’t know what was going on because I had never been introduced to heroin before. Up until the first night I did it. And I was like, why is he falling asleep on my couch. Why is he in the bathroom for so long? I just didn't know what was going on.
But then my friend was like, “Hey, I have something for you."
He’s like,"It’s going to hit you pretty quick. Just breathe."
He shot me up. It scared me because I’ve never done that before. But as soon as, like, it hit me, I saw the blood come up and push it in like, it’s weird talking about, but it’s like the best feeling I’ve ever had in my whole entire life. And that is when the heroin took my life over.
Blake: I was always looking, and once I got them, it was like, “Yes! I got them!” I never knew that was like addictive behavior. I had no idea that was indicative of, maybe, what was to come.
I was taking a lot of methodone. One day the guy that I used to get it from didn’t have any, but he said, “But I have this other stuff, it’s basically the same thing.” And he said it was called BTH.
And I didn’t think to wonder what the B and the T and the H stood for. It was black tar heroin.
And all of a sudden I’m justifying it like, you know, it’s not that big of a deal. I’m fine. I just did that much. I didn’t die. I’m OK. So I just kept asking for it. Pretty much just stopped asking for pills.
Tish: I went to her apartment, and she changed her shirt in front of me and all I could see were her ribs and she’s already a tiny, size 0 girl to begin with. It made me sick to my stomach. I had to leave the room. And when she came out of the room, “I’m like, what’s wrong. Something’s wrong with you.”
And she said, “Why, why do you say that?” And I go, “Because your ribs! You’re not that skinny!” I go, “You’re sick and something is wrong, and we need to figure out why you are losing this weight. Or there is something else going on that you’re not telling me about.”
By then she had advanced to methamphetamine, and she was smoking meth. And she was dating a guy that introduced her to that.
So it was all meth after the Oxiy She went to rehab, and after the rehab, when she relapsed, she relapsed with the heroin.
And that's what ultimately killed her.
Evan: I got sent to jail for a hit-and-run. I actually hit somebody with my car, and I took off because I had drugs on me. So I went to jail for that and then I got put on probation and I couldn't stay clean, and eventually he was like dude get in a program or you’re going to jail.
You need help, you need help, you're going to die. And eventually I did and I woke up eight days in a coma, eight days later. It was a mix of heroin, Opana, Xanax and Soma. And that was a daily routine for me.
My mom found me upside down right there on those stairs, with my dog trying to keep me awake. The doctor said that if it wasn't for my dog I'd be dead.
Anna: One day I just kind of was laying next my friend and I just looked around me and there’s writing all over the walls. The washer and dryer are broken filled with like clothes that are old and disgusting.
My friend had a dead cat in a box on my kitchen table. And there was food everywhere. I got up and looked at it, and I was like, “This is not who I am. This is not what I want from my life. I can’t do it anymore.” So I called my mom, and I was like, “You need to come get me, right now.” I was like “I’m going to die if I don’t leave here.” And I knew I was on that path because I had already overdosed, like, twice.
Tish: I never saw marks on her arms. You know, she’d wear tank tops and stuff. There was never any reason for me to believe that she was shooting up heroin.
One night after group, this one 19-year-old kid said, you know, “You want to get high or whatever.” And she said yes.
He went and got it and he shot it up for her. And she actually drove home after that, which scares me to death to think that she was on the road.
She came through her door and she like, stumbled. And I knew instantly something was up. I said, “You’re high on something right now. What did you do?” And she says, “Nothing, Mom,” in that yes, she was out of her mind.
She told me Oxy.
I said to her, you know, you need to go to bed. You know, we’ll talk about this in the morning, go to bed. And I just went upstairs to my husband and I just started crying. I’m like she’s high as a kite, what do we do? Do we call 911? Do we call the cops? Do we call the paramedics? I mean, I don’t know what to do right now. And he goes, “Just let her sleep, and tomorrow she is going back to rehab."
I slept upstairs in the loft instead of my bedroom so I could kind of keep an eye on her. At like 2 o’clock in the morning I kind of peeked over the wall of the loft where I could see her room and I see the light under her door.
And I thought, well maybe you are up all night on that. I still didn’t know, like, how you react to it. And I finally went to sleep and at 6 o’clock I woke up. When I heard the TV on and I still saw the light under the door I just had a really bad feeling. And then when I opened the door, I knew. Instantly.
Still in her clothes. But she was in her bed, under the covers. You know, her arms were crossed. She had a remote in one hand. Looks like she was just sleeping.
Dr. Robert Winokur: We’ve seen heroin increasing in Orange County over the last three or four, maybe five, years.
[On-screen text: Dr. Robert Winokur]
[Director of emergency department]
[Mission Hospital, Orange County]
I would say this is an epidemic in America. Certainly it’s a epidemic in South Orange County, Los Angeles County, throughout California. Our kids are dying. These are good kids, these are athletes, these are cheerleaders, these are A students. It’s a terrible, terrible tragedy to see a 20-something-year-old die from a preventable illness.
Oftentimes a car will pull up, they’ll push out somebody from the car, and they’ll screech off. We actually call that a positive screech sign in the emergency department.
The problem is often by the time I see these patients, they’re already in respiratory arrest or cardio-respiratory arrest, and it's too late.
Evan: I've been to a total of 11, 12, 13 funerals. I've seen that many people die that I’ve gone to high school with, grown up with, played T-ball with.
[On-screen text: Memorial for Joey Whynaught]
[Saddleback Church, Orange County]
Since we were 10, 11 years old, we've been at the beach together, but we've also been doing drugs together ever since. Getting stoned, it started with weed, and it eventually led to everything else.
[On-screen text: Joey Whynaught]
[August 1, 1988 – April 5, 2012]
Joey, he lived life to the fullest. When the waves were huge, we were out there. And when we got high, it was the same way. We weren’t afraid to try anything.
We lived life the exact same way, that's why we were friends. It was just kind of crazy, it’s like, he did the exact same things that I did and how come he passed away and not me?
So it was kind of a kick in the face. Like, dude, look, this is going to be you.
[On-screen text: Paddleout memorial for Joey Whynaught]
[Laguna Beach, California]
[Since 2007, more than 200 young people have died from drug overdoses in Orange County. Deaths from heroin overdoses have nearly doubled.]
[Learn more about this story at californiawatch.org/heroin]
[Produced and edited by Carrie Ching]
[Reported by Erin Marie Daly, Michael Montgomery, Sarah Varney]
[Photos by Daniel Anderson]
[Stock photos and video from iStockphoto and Shutterstock]
[Photos of Cassandra Liane Lewis courtesy of Tish Westrup]
[Photos of Joey Whynaught courtesy of Alice Whynaught]
[Paddleout video courtesy of Marty O'Brien]
["In a Dream" by johnny_ripper]
["Baba Bobo Mastered" by Cobra (avec logo panthère)]
[“You Ess É!” by Tortue Super Sonic]
[“Joyeux drille” by Cobra (avec logo panthère)]
["Sleep" by johnny_ripper]
Produced and edited by Carrie Ching
Reported by Erin Marie Daly, Michael Montgomery and Sarah Varney
Photography by Daniel A. Anderson