“The big bad wolf of drug culture”: Inside Delaware’s heroin epidemic

Heroin in Wilmington 2

Jack Beatson/THE REVIEW
Heroin epidemic present in Wilmington

Staff Reporter

On February 17, The News Journal announced that 48,000 bags of heroin had been seized from a total of five Newark and New Castle area residents. This amount, worth $488,000, is the largest seizing in the state’s history.

Delaware’s heroin epidemic has exploded in the past couple of years; the drug took 180 lives in 2015 and has continued to work its way into circulation in both the downtown and suburban areas of Wilmington.

Nineteen-year-old Wilmington resident James Thorton, whose name has been changed, has had more than his fair share of experiences with drugs. He has seen the effects of heroin firsthand and fought against its addictive properties not once, but twice.

“I was very fond of pot,” Thorton said, sitting across from me on a couch in my apartment’s living room. “Smoking pot was my thing. At least, so I thought.”

Thorton and I have been fairly good friends, as well as classmates, since we were young. Throughout his teenage years, Thorton dabbled in many different areas of drugs – everything from psychedelics to narcotics, including experimental research chemicals, such as MXE, a drug which functions primarily as an antidepressant. Thorton did his best not to discriminate when it came to the use of drugs, but even for him, heroin was off limits.

“It’s the big, bad wolf of drug culture,” Thorton said. “It’s like…not even the potheads will do this!”

However, when Thorton was 17 he found himself caught up in the middle of some heroin users. They were not people he generally hung out around, but shortly into their time together, the group began using. Thorton recalls an initial intent to stay away from the substance, but as he continued to be exposed to its usage, a desire began to creep over him.

“I was dealing with terrible depression – it was extremely bad. And so I thought, ‘you know what? F— it!’” he said.

His friends, after confirming that he knew what he was in for, got him all set to go. Thorton, in his current state of mind, was not very concerned about the long term effects of the drug. As he had once kicked an addiction to Oxycodone, a commonly abused painkiller, he convinced himself that he could beat heroin, that it would be a one-time thing or, at worst, something he did on occasion.

“The first time doing that stuff was pure euphoria,” Thorton said. “I honestly couldn’t have cared about anything even if I wanted to.”

A month later, Thorton tried heroin for the second time. This time he began to seize and his friends drove him home while he was vomiting.

“I didn’t really think that it was a problem at the time,” Thorton said. “I thought ‘oh, I just did too much.’”

His usage only continued to get more frequent from there. It got to the point where he was snorting the powder as much as he possibly could, said Thorton. He often found himself nodding off during his classes, and was overwhelmed with a feeling of general apathy.

“I wasn’t really feeling much anymore at that point,” he said.

After two months of his bingeing, a group of his friends confronted him about his usage and told him it had gone too far. Thorton realized that they were right and quit cold turkey, he said.

For eight months he once again enjoyed a heroin-free life and he had no temptations to go back to using, Thorton said. That is, until one day when he was shoveling the snow from his driveway and began to develop terrible back pains.

As the pain got worse, Thorton began to think more about returning to using. He sought out one of his friends, purchased a bag, usually containing 100 milligrams of heroin, for 10 dollars. Thorton’s relapse lasted for five days.

Thorton was high on heroin at virtually every minute of those five days, he said. He was hardly home during this time, and was mixing depressants with stimulants constantly as well.

“Your body is not supposed to constantly be in a state of physical depression like that,” Thorton said. “So you keep that up for a certain amount of time, and your body doesn’t quite work properly.”

In addition to snorting heroin, Thorton was already doing cocaine and abusing the ADHD medication Focalin, as well as other dextroamphetamines, he said. During this time, he was so out of it – both physically and mentally – that he did not even protest while being mugged, he said.

While driving around on the fifth night of his relapse, Thorton noticed he was being tailed by a pair of police officers, he said. After pursuing him for quite a while, they finally pulled Thorton over, opened his door from the inside, and slammed Thorton against his own car.  

Thorton demanded to know what he had done while being placed in handcuffs and into the back of the cop car. For the next twenty-five minutes or so, the cop’s partner searched Thorton’s car, he said.

“I had a bunch of crazy s— in there,” Thorton said. “I had a machete – who the f— knows why I had a machete? – a ton of spray paint, and about sixty empty bags or something like that.”

The officers, assuming Thorton was a homeless man, had not followed procedure in their detainment of him. This allowed Thorton to get off with probation for minors, his only requirement being periodic drug tests. Otherwise Thorton would have been tried as an adult and faced up to 40 years in prison, he said.

Thorton’s encounter with the law had awakened him to just how serious his addiction had become and, as a result, he once again quit cold turkey. This time, however, he did not look back, not even once, he said.

Thorton is an example of someone who has faced the juggernaut of heroin addiction and emerged victorious. However, there are many just like him who have not been as fortunate. Although the heroin initially comes in through poorer, inner-city folk, the main demographic of users are middle-class white kids, Thorton said.

According to Thorton, much of the heroin which is circulating in Delaware is impure, mixed with other opiates, such as fentanyl. This also means that it’s easier for users to get hooked on. As it’s difficult to tell the difference between pure and impure, many users of impure heroin can mistakenly take pure heroin, which is substantially stronger, Thorton said.

When people who generally use impure heroin take the same amount of pure heroin, they will more than likely die by overdosing. This is heroin’s most common way of killing, he said.

A veteran officer with the Wilmington police force, who wishes to remain nameless, can attest to this. The officer has spent most of his 18 year career on the streets, watching the epidemic unfurl.

“Once that s—‘s here and it’s on the street, we’ve lost,” he said.

The officer has spent the past few years working in prisoner processing, and says that all of the drug-related cases he sees come through are all heroin-related.

“You can look at somebody and you can tell. I mean heroin does that to you.”

As Thorton said, the officer confirms that the dealers are not the ones who are doing heroin. While the dealers are moving hundreds or thousands of bags, they’re not using. The officer describes a recent case in which a man, who was already on parole for dealing, was found with 800 bags of heroin in his car.

According to the officer, the only way that the police can usually bust dealers is due to them receiving anonymous tips. Even when they are caught, dealers usually don’t have their entire supply on them. For all of the heroin that is seized from each dealer, there is sure to be more out there somewhere.

“If they’ve got 10,000 bags, there’s probably still 100,000 out there,” the officer says. According to him, the Wilmington police force gets calls relating to heroin on an almost daily basis.

Even though police are doing what they can to tackle the situation, heroin use has been on the rise in Wilmington in recent years. The lives of residents who get sucked into it continue to be placed in danger by the drug’s presence. 

“I feel like anybody who has an idea of what heroin is and still wants to do it has a death wish,” Thorton said. “It f—in’ changes people man. It’s a s—ty time.”

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