Illegal drugs such as heroin are as easy to come by as simply knocking on a door
■ D.N. Stuefloten / Contributed
[Editor’s Note: Center for Disease Control and Prevention researchers examined data from the National Vital Statistics System to see the effects of drug trends across the nation from 1999 to 2015, and the results were startling. The rate of fatal drug overdoses in the U.S. more than doubled since 1999, outpacing suicide and car accidents in 2015 as a cause of death, according to the report.
The deadly spread of illicit opioids also reflect in the numbers. The percentage of fatal overdoses related to heroin more than tripled from 8 percent in 2010 to 25 percent in 2015. Synthetic opioids also took a heavy toll accounting for 18 percent of fatal overdose deaths in 2015 up from 8 percent in 2010.]
This is how Yasmeen starts her day: holding a match under a spoon. Her hands tremble. Can she do it? She is in such pain. The stainless steel spoon sucks up the heat. Come on, baby, she says. The brown heroin boils suddenly in the distilled water, just as the match falls from her burnt fingers. She draws up the syringe—
It is six o’clock in the morning. We are in San Jacinto. The sun is rising over the hills to the east.
“It’s the worst time for a junkie,” Yasmeen says. “You wake up sick. All you can think about is your first fix. God, you need it. I can’t tell you how much you need it.”
“What if you don’t have it?”
“Yeah.” She draws long and deep on her cigarette. “Yeah, I know that feeling.”
We are in her apartment. There are coffee cups and overflowing ashtrays everywhere, but otherwise it could be anyone’s apartment. Yasmeen does not look like a junkie. She looks pretty and bright. She is 30 years old, a graduate of the local high school. She’s been off heroin now for three months. It’s the third time she’s quit, and the first time she’s totally clean. The other times she drank or used marijuana.
Alcohol seemed okay, she says, everyone was drinking it, right? It was legal. She’d go to bars and get smashed. You didn’t have to hide your booze from the law. You could do it right there in front of everybody, like a normal person. At the time she was living with her mom in her double-wide trailer home just outside town.
Yasmeen was off heroin but she was drinking, drinking something every day, drinking just to get through the day. The other time she quit heroin she lived with her younger brother. He smoked marijuana. All the kids smoked marijuana, and took a pill once in awhile. It was so common it was almost legal, wasn’t it? But this time she’s not taking anything, no booze, no pills, not since the last Darvon which helped her come off withdrawal—nothing except nicotine, the omnipresent cigarettes, and cup after cup of coffee.
I have known Yasmeen for some months. She has been reluctant to talk. Junkies don’t talk to non-junkies, she said once.
“You straights”—and she stared me straight in the eye—“live in a different world.” She’s openly scornful of the “war on drugs,” of the task force mentality that wants to send more guns into the streets, more cops, more soldiers, patrol cars, AWACS cruising the Caribbean, jet planes on standby, wings drooping with rockets—what she calls the Bigger Balls approach to America’s drug problem.
The hullabaloo is ironic, and xenophobic, since it is mostly directed at minority users, even though the government itself acknowledges—reluctantly—that most American drug users are white. Wall Street is adrift with coke. Our rural communities are being ravaged by prescription opiates, Vicodin and Oxycontin and their various clones, or—even better—the real stuff, heroin.
But no one busts down their doors, AR-16s set to automatic. It’s the blacks and Mexicans who are railed against, who get thrown into the can, who clog up the courts in disproportionate numbers. Officials have estimated that only 12 percent of illicit drug users are minorities, but they make up 80 percent of the arrests.
And why not? They’ve got no lobby, they’ve got no hope, they’re visible, easy to blame, and most of them never vote. Nicotine kills more Americans than all other drugs combined—more even than are killed by drunk drivers—but it is still, if tenuously, legal. The cops don’t go searching for the Marlboro Man.
“All right,” I say. “It’s six or seven in the morning. You’re sick, but you’ve got no heroin. What do you do?”
“Do I have to do this?”
Her eyes are shut.
“Christ,” she says. “What do you think? You go looking to score.”
Scoring heroin in Southern California—in San Jacinto or Hemet, in Fallbrook or Escondido—is not difficult. Black tar Mexican heroin comes across the border, sucked in by America’s incessant demand, and settles in neighborhoods everywhere, where it is available to all, black, brown, white — an equal opportunity drug.
The need for heroin dominates a junkie’s days—and nights. Yasmeen would dream of heroin, of scoring and fixing it, dream of the dark moist smear of it in its cellophane pouch, a gift-wrapped present promising endless relief, release, surcease, dream of the needle sliding into an arm or leg, the blood as dark as the darkest red sunset, dream of the faces of the men selling it, offering it, withholding it. The dreams are nightmarish, insistent. And so—for the junkie—are the days.
We pile into Yasmeen’s old Toyota. On mornings when she was strung out, she’d emerge from her apartment looking like the wrath of God, face puffy, eyes bleak, her skin so sensitive she could scarcely bear touching anything. On this morning, clean for three months, her face is made-up, her clothes neatly pressed, tight jeans and silk shirt, high heels, her blonde hair as sweet smelling as the morning air.
She looks alert, pretty, trim—and nervous. For a while we drive aimlessly, watching the citizens begin their day, picking up morning papers, leaving for work or school. It’s a cool spring morning, the trees in their new greenery, the hills visible through the smogless air.
“I’m no stoolie,” Yasmeen says.
“You won’t use this, right? I mean, you won’t name the street, or go to the cops…”
I assure her I won’t.
She bites her lip.
“Okay,” she says. “Up there—on the right—“
It’s a small house, plain, ordinary, even neat.
“That was a long time ago,” she says, “when I was first using. I don’t know who’s there now.”
We continue. At no time are we more than a few blocks from downtown.
A run-down rental with a weedy yard.
“And that one.”
A house with a white picket fence. Old cars on jacks, parts strewn about.
“Sometimes I’d go there—“
“Once. They didn’t trust me, not even when I fixed in front of them.”
“Who told you about them?”
“How would you do it?”
“You know—just go in. Knock on the door.”
“‘Hi, I need a fix?’”
“Yeah. ‘I want to buy a bag.’”
“But they didn’t trust you?”
“I named people I knew—my regular supplier. I showed them my tracks—you know, the needle marks. I’ll fix it right here, I said. Finally they sold me some, enough for one shot.”
“Where’s your regular supplier?”
“I don’t want to go there,” she says.
“I’d really like to see the place.”
Yasmeen drives us past familiar neighborhoods. I see homes of friends and acquaintances. We pass children playing in the street, a woman watering a lilac bush, bicyclists in their latex-shining pants. We see unkempt yards, neat yards, houses needing paint, new houses, stucco homes, modern condos, apartment blocks—evidence of the area’s continued growth.
I ask Yasmeen who she’d see at her supplier’s. What were the other junkies like?
Find out in Part II, which will run next week.
D.N. Stuefloten grew up in Hemet, in a walnut orchard, and in the 1980s published Valley, a Magazine for Hemet and San Jacinto. He is a novelist (“The Ethiopian Exhibition,” “Maya,” “The Queen of Las Vegas” and “The Wilderness,” all published by Fiction Collective 2) and short story writer and has lived in London, Australia, Borneo, Tangier, Mexico and many other places. DNStuefloten.com is his website.