Young, Rich and Strung Out!

Young, Rich and Strung Out!
Posted by FoM on January 08, 1999 at 17:58:46 PT

Oscar Scaggs may not have known it, but he rode a cresting, ugly new wave right to his death when he overdosed in a down-and-outer hotel on New Year's Eve. The wave is heroin addiction -- a familiar horror come back. 
Heroin emerging as drug of choice for Bay Area's well-off kids Just when most experts had written the drug off as hitting a downswing, the old granddad of narcotics known as dope, chiva and smack that has so infamously ravaged junkies off and on for decades is on the rise. Again. This time the drug is reaching its anesthetizing fingers deeper than ever into the ranks of the young, middle- and upper-middle class -- kids like the 21-year-old son of blues rocker Boz Scaggs, ones from wealthy city districts and suburbs who have the world at their fingertips and snort, smoke or inject it away. This isn't the ``heroin chic'' that gripped hollow-eyed celebrities in the mid- 1990s, killing the likes of actor River Phoenix and grunge rocker Stefanie Sargent with overdoses. That wave was on its way out even as President Clinton denounced it in May 1997, replaced by an upsurge in the abuse of methamphetamine, or speed. In the depressingly predictable way of the drug world, this wave is the inevitable answer to the speed epidemic, experts say -- inevitable because epidemics of stimulant ``upper'' drugs are always followed by epidemics of depressant ``downer'' drugs. The main difference with this latest heroin wave is that the smack on the street these days has become so incredibly potent that users don't have to inject it, as they do low- grade heroin. This has put a richer cut of kid into the drug's mangy grasp. Being able to smoke it or inhale it straight out of a bag means youths can use heroin and still pass through their privileged worlds without tell- tale needle ``tracks'' on their arms to give them away. At least for a while, that is -- most, if they become hard- core junkies, eventually turn to syringes. Adding to the allure is the fact that heroin has become so cheap -- $5 a hit, down from $100 in the early 1990s -- that it now costs about as much to get high on smack for six hours as it does to buy a six-pack of beer. Heroin that would have been about 5 percent pure a few years ago is now 60 to 80 percent pure. Most kids-of-privilege users are in their early 20s, medical and law enforcement officials say, but a very small and growing percentage, less than 2 percent nationwide, are between the ages of 12 and 18. The kids come from anywhere money is not a problem, from Pacific Heights in San Francisco to the better-heeled pockets of suburban Marin, Contra Costa, San Mateo and Alameda counties. They are all drawn, though, to one place. San Francisco, the epicenter of the epidemic, is where most young suburban users come to get their dope. With the invulnerability of youth throbbing inside them, they don't know what they're getting into. ``We treat them younger and higher-income all the time, and it's getting worse,'' said Dr. David Smith, founder and medical director of the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinics in San Francisco. ``Because they can smoke it or inhale it now, they think they can't get addicted and won't get noticed, but they're very wrong. ``It's a killer, no matter how you do it. And it's now an epidemic.'' Oscar Scaggs, with the cachet of having the last name of one of San Francisco's most famous musicians, wasn't a typical rich kid. But those who knew him well say his death is emblematic of what's happening to lots of kids of privilege -- celebrity or not. ``There's this myth among parents that it's as simple as saying good people don't do drugs and bad people do. Well, Oscar was the kindest, sweetest person I'd ever met in my life,'' said Maura Lynch, 21, a close friend. ''And right now I can list 10 other people I know in this city between the ages of 19 to 25 who are involved with heroin, too. That's the drug's age group now: It's the upper-class kids just out of high school who are doing it.'' Oscar Scaggs was emotionally devastated when his lifelong friend, Nick Traina, author Danielle Steel's manic-depressive son, died of a drug overdose in 1997 at age 19. But it wasn't enough to ward him off his own dope craving. ``We went to Nick's funeral together, and I remember him telling me how stupid it was, the way he died,'' Lynch said. ``He said horrible things about the drug and how he hated junkies.'' Scaggs went into a rehabilitation program last January and seemed to be staying clean nearly up to the time of his death, friends and police said. Exactly why and how he wound up dead in the tatty Royan Hotel remains cloudy. ``I knew he was going to the (Royan) hotel to look for a friend who was a junkie,'' said Lynch. ``Her parents had asked for help, and he was checking with his dealers to try to find her. I guess that's how he got back in touch with them after being clean.'' Dawn Holliday, who books Boz Scaggs' San Francisco nightclub Slim's, where Oscar worked as a sound technician, knows the suburban heroin explosion with painful intimacy. Holliday's younger brother, Norman, lived in Marin and overdosed on heroin at the 16th and Mission BART Station several years ago. He was resuscitated after a passer-by noticed him turning blue and called 911. Norman moved to upstate New York, telling his sister he couldn't get clean in San Francisco. ``He said he couldn't even take a bus from SFO to Sausalito without copping,'' Holliday said. ``His friends were rich, white Marin deadheads. They started smoking it, then shooting it. It got to the point where he told me he wouldn't be surprised if half of Marin County woke up one morning with a heroin habit.'' The National Drug Control Policy Office reports that the number of heroin addicts nationwide has shot up from 500,000 in 1991 to 810,000 today -- more than 200,000 of that total being added in the past year alone. And just in California, heroin seizures by the state Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement went from just 87 pounds in 1995, the height of the ``heroin chic'' period, to 148 pounds last year. Police say the figure only reflects a fraction of what is really out there. Perhaps most sobering of all, San Francisco has the highest rate of heroin-related deaths of any city in the state: One every three days, double the rate of the early '90s, and far more than from any other drug. However, tracing heroin's specific injection into the lives of the rich or even the merely comfortable is much harder. Those with enough money tend to take their kids to private doctors when they overdose, keeping them off the public medical records. But the trend is standing out like neon among those who must deal with it, like Smith -- who helped Scaggs, and whose wife was Scaggs' chief drug counselor. ``The drug culture is like the tobacco industry,'' said Smith, who attended a private memorial service for Scaggs on Tuesday night at Slim's. ``They market to youth, and to where they can get the money. They don't care who they destroy.'' Wave or no wave, it's not like heroin ever really went away. The first big heroin epidemic swept San Francisco in the late 1960s and early '70s, and others have ebbed and flowed like a dirty tide ever since, with a hard core of steady users remaining no matter what. Even when the ``chic'' trend died down, celebrities kept right on using and dying. The chic phenomenon itself was actually a follow-up wave to an earlier infusion of heroin into San Francisco's and other urban populations of indigent street kids in the late 1980s. So the epidemic now reaching into the middle and upper-classes is the third wallop of smack in the past decade. ``Mary,'' a 22-year-old San Franciscan from a privileged home who was hooked on heroin and got clean more than a year ago, said the drug's come-on draw for the just-out-of- high school crowd is purely recreational. ``It's not so much a party crowd thing, because when you're high on dope the last thing you want to do is dance,'' said Mary, who spoke on condition of anonymity. ``You start out just experimenting with your friends, you know, as something different from pot or acid, and then it just gets ahold of you before you know it.'' Another part of the appeal is purely generational. In a world of aging baby boomers, upscale potheads and ex-hippie acid casualties, heroin is emblematic of a younger generation, as intricately linked to its music and fashion scene as an iron-on Marijuana leaf patch was to that of its parents. It may be the most dangerous drug, but at least it's theirs -- which isn't really accurate, but that's the thinking. Dave Kaplan, who runs the Easy Action music booking agency in San Francisco's Mission District, figures that heroin's fashion rating has little bearing on what happens on the street. ``All I know is that whenever I walk down 16th Street it looks like a scene out of `Night of the Living Dead,' '' he said. ``If anything, the Mission corridor has gotten worse. People outgrow drugs like acid, but it's hard to get over being strung out on heroin.'' Parts of the Mission and Haight- Ashbury districts serve as the city's principal dope supermarkets. Dealers use addicts as their front men, sending them to the sidewalks with batches of smack to sell and paying them off with hits for themselves. While police and doctors are scrambling to stem the addiction wave and handle the overdoses, drug pushers gleefully say times have never been better. ``Orinda, Marin, the Marina -- you name it, we get 'em,'' said one drug dealer at 16th and Mission who spoke on condition of anonymity. ``Just in the last year or so, it seems like every other buyer, or more, who comes here is some rich white kid.'' This is where Scaggs at times came to get his dope; the hotel where he died is just two blocks away. Dealers and junkies alike are easy to pick out on the sidewalk -- for those who are looking, at least -- as they troll for each other from midday deep into the night, avoiding the frequent police patrols. ``The kids start out on pot, acid, stuff like that, in the Haight, and when they want the chiva they come here,'' said the dealer. The big thing for sale right now is a ``one on one,'' also called a speedball, a tiny combination bag of heroin and cocaine that goes for about $10 and is good for one or two highs. ``You sell them for $15 to the rich kids, telling them they're getting the coke for free, until they start using heavy and finally figure out they're paying too much,'' the dealer said with a laugh. ``Some people also cut the stuff with shoe polish or powdered sugar, and the kids never know the difference.'' Asked why heroin would boom among the comfy set, he shrugged. ``I guess because chiva's cheaper than just about anything else right now,'' he said. ''It doesn't make no difference if you're a millionaire -- everyone wants to spend $1 to get $10 worth of something. ``And if there's anyone who knows a bargain, it's rich people.'' 
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Comment #1 posted by Roshila on February 07, 2000 at 01:43:57 PT:
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