Danny Dillon, a three-sport athlete, thought he was snorting a crushed-up pain pill the first time he tried heroin, as a high school junior.
It wasn’t long before he was injecting the drug, a decision based not just on the effects but on his wallet.
“The price is what made it easy,” said Dillon, a recovering addict from Braidwood, a one-time coal town on Chicago’s suburban fringe. “Instead of paying $20 for some pills, I could pay $10 and it would last me two or three days.”
Dillon’s simple calculation captures the recent transformation of heroin use in the U.S.: who buys it, how it’s sold and, increasingly, who dies from it. More people are using it than at any time since the 1970s -- 79 percent more in the past five years alone.
Driving this explosion in customers is a growing nonchalance toward a drug once considered taboo. Users today are younger, more affluent and more likely to live in suburbs or small towns, according to government officials and drug treatment experts. And they’re snorting or injecting a form of heroin more potent than during the drug’s previous heyday.
In the Midwest, heroin’s re-emergence has been abetted by the marketing ingenuity of the Sinaloa cartel, the Mexican drug organization that has grabbed control of narcotics sales in the region. The cartel, whose leader once described Chicago as his “home port,” took advantage of the power vacuum left when federal prosecutors sent many top gang leaders to prison, fomenting violence among gang members who serve as the main sales force for Sinaloa.
At the same time, the cartel has exploited rare victories in the war on drugs: reduced cocaine production in South America and tighter controls on prescription drugs in the U.S.
Cocaine has increased in price while Oxycontin -- sometimes called “hillbilly heroin” -- has been reformulated in such a way that it’s now less desirable to addicts.
Sinaloa and its dealers have offered a ubiquitous alternative in packs of heroin that sell for as little as $10, not much more than a six-pack of beer.
“Economics is driving people towards it for sure,” said Dan Bigg, director of the Chicago Recovery Alliance, which provides outreach for drug abusers. “It’s a much cheaper way to go for a unit dose.”
This heroin epidemic, hitting not just Chicago’s suburbs but smaller cities, from Indianapolis to tiny Oconto, Wisconsin, is one few saw coming, least of all the parents of young users.
Kaelan Mondragon, a 16-year-old from the affluent suburb of Wheaton, was a varsity volleyball player and a bright, if indifferent, student who had once been caught with marijuana.
Last March, his mother, Justine Mondragon, went to wake Kaelan and found him lifeless in his bed. “I screamed, ’What did you do? What did you do?’ You don’t want to think your kid would kill himself, but you don’t know.”
A day later, police told the family that Kaelan had overdosed.
“It was inconceivable to us that he would try something like heroin,” said his father, Marcos Mondragon. “It didn’t fit any patterns that we could have expected.”
Kaelan’s death was one of 43 fatal heroin overdoses so far this year in DuPage County, due west of Chicago and known for its comfortable neighborhoods, top-notch schools and conservative politics. Richard Jorgensen, the county coroner, said heroin deaths increased to 43 last year from 26 in 2011.
Similar spikes in fatal heroin overdoses have been recorded in other counties surrounding Chicago. Neighboring Will County had 53 last year, up from 30 in 2011.
The record death toll is fueled by increases in the volume and purity of heroin, both credited chiefly to the Sinaloa cartel led by Joaquin Guzman, who the U.S. Treasury Department last year called “the world’s most powerful drug trafficker.”
Mexican heroin production increased more than six-fold from 2005 to 2009, to an estimated 50 metric tons, according to the Justice Department. About half of the heroin in the U.S. now comes from Mexico, followed by South America and Asia, 2011 Justice Department seizure data show.
Heroin seized from the Sinaloa cartel was 94 percent pure, a point of pride for the cartel’s leaders, according to 2011 court records. Just a year earlier, wholesale heroin confiscated in Chicago was, on average, 64 percent, according to the Chicago office of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Like narcotic traffickers before it, the Sinaloa cartel acts as a wholesaler, selling kilograms to dealers who dilute the heroin with other white powders to expand their supply and profits.
The difference now is that the dramatically enhanced purity -- 35 percent at the street level in Chicago in 2010, according to police, compared with about 4 percent in the 1980s -- allows both wholesalers and dealers to make a much bigger profit.
By the time it gets to Chicago’s West Side, 1/10 of a gram is sold in tin-foil packets or baggies for $10, according to an undercover agent working for the DEA who asked that his identity be protected.
“You can turn that one kilo into five kilos,” said Jack Riley, who heads the DEA’s Chicago office. “It is truly the drug of choice for the street gangs now. It’s their liquid gold, how they fuel their organization.”
It’s also a key reason for the surge in fatal overdoses, creating a sort of heroin roulette for users, given the potential difference in purity levels from one dealer to the next.
A particularly strong batch is suspected in 11 fatal overdoses in DuPage during July alone. “The drugs are so variable, it’s difficult to know what you are doing,” said Jorgensen, the coroner. “It’s not like taking one Vicodin -- you know what pill it is. In this situation, it’s different every time.”
Isabelle Triezenberg, blonde with braces, looks more like a cheerleader or camp counselor than a recovering heroin addict. But in many ways she exemplifies a new generation that’s less intimidated by heroin.
Though she smoked marijuana in high school and popped painkillers she stole from her grandmother’s medicine cabinet, she said she was “grossed out” by heroin, which her younger brother used. Then, in July 2011, her curiosity prevailed and she snorted some.
Two weeks later, she injected it.
“It was like taking Vicodin but without the nausea, straight opiates,” said Triezenberg, now 21.
It was also cheaper than pills. Triezenberg said she required nine or 10 Vicodin to get high. At $5 or $6 a pill, that meant a habit of $50 a day or more. “For the amount I needed, I didn’t have money like that to spend,” she said. By comparison, two or three baggies of heroin, at $10 apiece, were enough for a day.
Stories like Triezenberg’s have become increasingly common. There were 156,000 new users of heroin in 2012, among the highest levels since the 1970s, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
New heroin users in the Chicago area are now more likely to be white, suburban and in their late teens or 20s, according to law enforcement officials and drug-treatment counselors.
The drug used to be confined largely to the inner city, among lower-income minorities, and it was so impure that only injecting it would offer a high, police and researchers said. The increased purity has allowed users to snort and smoke it, which is less intimidating than injecting it with a needle.
Treatment experts said heroin’s appeal has also been fueled by its popularity with celebrities such as “Glee” star Cory Monteith, who died of an overdose in July.
Heroin now has a greater price advantage over other drugs. Cocaine has become less available and more expensive in the U.S. since 2007 due to fighting among cartels, government anti-drug campaigns and an increase of cocaine smuggling to Europe, according to a 2011 report by the Justice Department. It said a gram of cocaine cost $165 in September 2010, 69 percent more than in January 2007, and the purity was 30 percent less.
A bigger factor may be the effort to curb prescription drug abuse -- 12.5 million people in 2012 -- that has reduced the desirability and availability of some commonly abused pain pills. In 2010, extended-release Oxycontin was reformulated by Purdue Pharma LP to make it harder to inject and less appealing to addicts. At the same time, federal and state officials have tightened rules to prevent the misuse of prescription painkillers.
From 2010 to 2012, illicit Oxycontin use declined 21 percent, and the number of first-time abusers of pain relievers dropped too, according to a federal survey.
Those victories have come at a cost. Some pill abusers switched to heroin, which works on the same brain receptors as narcotic pain relievers. Four out of five new heroin users had previously used illicit pain pills, a federal survey found. Abusers 12 to 49 years old were 19 times more likely to try heroin than those who didn’t misuse pills.
The most frequent abusers of prescription painkillers are most likely to use heroin, said Christopher Jones, who leads a prescription-drug overdose team for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Their behavior is not going to change because people stop prescribing the drug,” Jones said.
As heroin has become more popular in suburban Chicago, many users eschew local dealers to drive into the city, where heroin is cheaper and more potent. “You want to buy it in Bolingbrook?” said a 21-year-old woman who asked to remain anonymous, referring to the southwest suburb where she lives. “They will charge you $20 and give you half the dope.”
Despite the violent reputation of Chicago’s West Side, Dillon, the high-school athlete, said the experience wasn’t as harrowing as what he expected. Dealers promised to protect valuable customers, he said, and even offered discounts for volume purchases.
“I figured they’d just shoot me when I got there,” said Dillon, who put 40,000 miles on his car in a year and a half driving to Chicago and back. “They just want your money.”
Kaitlyn Moak made the drive in June 2012. She was eating Chinese food with her grandparents when some friends picked her up to go out. It was a few weeks after she had graduated from Providence Catholic High School in New Lenox, Illinois, where Kaitlyn had made the honor roll and sang in the choir.
That evening, she and her friends had $130 between them and purchased 15 baggies of heroin from a dealer they knew as “Juju.”
Kaitlyn’s mother, Jacqueline Olson, said that for all her daughter’s high school laurels, she wasn’t oblivious to the teenager’s heroin use. Olson worried about the group Kaitlyn started hanging around with as a junior. During Kaitlyn’s senior year, Olson heard her daughter had tried the drug.
She confronted Kaitlyn, who denied it and passed several random drug tests, said Olson, a sheriff’s deputy. By the time her daughter graduated from high school, Olson said she believed the worst was behind them.
Kaitlyn was found dead in her bed the morning after she went into the city with her friends, five baggies of heroin still in her purse.
“My mom is a substance abuse counselor and she didn’t see any signs,” Olson said. “I randomly drug tested her, so it wasn’t like I was naïve.”
“I don’t feel guilty,” she added. “A lot of parents feel guilty. Maybe it will come with time. I thought I did everything right.”