The end of the line looks like this: a squat, brick building called Benilde Hall in an old neighborhood on East 23rd Street, where recovering dope fiends shuffle with the crooked gaits of much older men. They carry around plastic bags because that's all they need for holding everything they own. A clean white room in the basement is festooned with 12-Step banners, and a dry-erase board has a single word written on it: accountability.
When you think about where heroin users go to get clean, Benilde Hall is what you picture — a hoisting-up point for those clinging to the lowest rotted rung on society's ladder, where crooked arrows come to shoot straight. It hadn't been like that over the past decade, at least not with heroin. The smoke hounds who have rolled through here had chosen other poisons, like crack.
"Well, wait a minute," Kent Jewell says over the phone. A stocky former heroin junkie — he says he was strung out in Florida and once got down to 120 pounds — Jewell runs the place now, helping others get clean.
He starts looking at the numbers of the past few months, really looking. He just now notices that he has admitted 10 heroin users at Benilde since last summer, and there weren't any in the first half of the year. (The place holds just 65 men.) "It's come up," he says of the number, sounding surprised.
And it is a surprise. Thanks to an influx of Mexican black tar hitting the streets, the Kansas City area is seeing a heroin resurgence, one that's creeping past the Benilde perimeter.
It's no secret that drug use is up in the United States, especially among teens and college kids. Using pot holds less stigma. And there's a lot less stigma with the abuse of prescription meds, which are easy to get and easy to take, making them popular with the Johnson County crowd. The pain med OxyContin provides pretty much the same opium high as heroin, and taking a pill is a lot less scary than sticking a needle in your arm.
The cops say that's exactly the problem. Heroin provides the same opium high as OxyContin but is way cheaper, and a surge in Mexican heroin manufacturing and trafficking has met the perfect gateway into a new crowd of addled suburbanites.
"What we were seeing were very nontypical users," says Deputy Tom Erickson of the Johnson County Sheriff's Office. He recalls the threefold surge of heroin use that happened in the suburbs in 2009 and has now leveled off to twice the historical average. "High school kids who are getting good grades, athletes in school — they don't fit the mold of what you think a heroin user would be, and it takes you by surprise because those are the people who should have a bright future."
The Sheriff's Office saw 63 heroin cases in 2011 compared with 30 in 2008. "What we saw is that they would start out using the prescription opiates (such as OxyContin) and, either because they were harder to get or much more expensive, we'd see the transition from prescription opiates to using heroin," Erickson says. It's the same kind of high for the same kind of doping for way less money.
On the Missouri side, the Kansas City Police Department reports that a gram of heroin goes for $100 to $150, and they say the amount they've seen on KC streets skyrocketed last year. "Fashion isn't the only thing from the 1980s making a comeback in Kansas City," the department noted in its autumn narcotics report.
Heroin likely comes to Kansas City courtesy of the Sinaloa Cartel, which dominates the smack-trafficking game throughout the Midwest. It's the largest and most sophisticated drug syndicate in not just Mexico but also the world. Federal officials think the black-tar varietal that the cartel produces there slips across the south Texas border and up Interstate 35 through KC on its way toward Minneapolis and the East Coast, where it's slowly pushing out the shit of the Colombian cartels that used to run the show.
It's a particularly festering front of a global drug war that federal officials admit they have no chance of soon winning or even slowing. Mexican heroin production is up significantly, increasing by 600 percent between 2005 and 2009, according to recent U.S. Department of Justice estimates.
St. Louis has reported huge increases in fatal overdoses since 2008. Officials there believe that at least 57 people died in nine months of heroin-related causes, leading to the biggest heroin bust in that city's history: 53 arrests in an operation involving almost three dozen law-enforcement agencies.
Those are much bigger numbers than anything we've had here. Yet, KCPD has reported at least three fatal heroin overdoses, and they weren't typical users.
"The arrests have gone from a drug used by older people — we're talking people in their 50s and 60s, old-school dopers — to a crowd that's a lot younger," an undercover narcotics sergeant said in the KCPD quarterly report. "And they're coming from all walks of life and all around the area, like Overland Park and Leawood."
The OxyContin-heroin bridge is a particularly dangerous one to cross because it's easy to get started — who hasn't taken a prescription med? — and hard to quit. Heroin addiction can be hell to escape, and users could be sharing HIV every time they share needles. Stacey Daniels-Young, director of Jackson County's COMBAT anti-drug office, says last year's data show that KC heroin junkies are starting detox but not finishing recovery treatment — probably just kicking the can down the road, in other words, which is typical for younger users.
Kick the can far enough, and it lands at the end of the line: in the musty, pale-green office of Benilde Hall, where Jewell hears a rustle and points at someone who just walked in. "Grocery bag," he whispers. The one thing you keep when you've lost it all.