Las Vegas Sun

May 6, 2021

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Modern addiction: Our heroin epidemic

How your medicine cabinet can lead you to a back alley drug


L.E. Baskow

Joe Engle and sons, from left, Dylan, 22, Shane, 21, and Adam, 16, with a portrait of Reese Engle, who died in July 2011 from a heroin overdose. Joe is the local leader of the group There Is No Hero in Heroin.

Not even the funeral of his beloved older brother, dead from a lethal injection of their shared drug of choice, could put the brakes on Dylan Engle’s downward spiral.

Death didn’t scare him. He made daily trips to the dope man’s house, blowing his paychecks on a pricey habit that left him cloistered in his home’s bathroom.

There, he would smoke heroin, sometimes up to six times a day. He lost weight, and acne sprouted on his face, but neither physical change deterred him. Nor did his first stint in rehab.

Heroin’s effect on the body

For all the reasons contributing to the increased rate of heroin use, one unusual perspective stands out. “There’s this kind of weird paradoxical appeal of heroin because prescription opiates (such as hydrocodone and morphine) have gotten so much attention and there’s such a bad rap in the media about them being so highly addictive and dangerous,” said UNLV psychology professor Laurel Pritchard. “There’s this perception that heroin is a more natural opiate and is somehow less bad for you.” Here’s why that’s not true.


Heroin enters the bloodstream through a vein, muscle or nose and reaches the brain in less than 10 seconds when injected or 10-15 minutes when snorted or smoked.

Once there, it converts to morphine and triggers pleasure circuits in the brain that produce a strong euphoric feeling, commonly referred to as a “rush.”


Lasts one to two minutes. Similar reactions also occur when someone has sex, eats or does something else that the brain associates with breeding and survival.


After the rush, users transition into a four-to-five hour high. The drug is a depressant and an analgesic, or painkiller.


A key sign of heroin use is constricted, pinpoint-size pupils.

The biggest risk of harm from opiate use is dependence, which can lead to the propensity to engage in dangerous behavior, such as sharing dirty needles. Users are susceptible to skin infections and sepsis, a severe blood infection that can lead to organ failure and death.

“Heroin is such a powerful drug that it kills us before we get a chance to change our lives,” he said.

And it is the Las Vegas Valley’s fastest-growing drug problem, plunging a disproportionate number of teens and young adults into the throes of a powerful addiction.

The slightly sticky, powdery substance known as black tar or brown heroin is keeping narcotics investigators busy.

In the last week of March, drug task forces in Southern Nevada recovered about 14 pounds of heroin in one seizure and about four pounds in another.

Eighteen pounds might seem like a paltry amount given that authorities routinely snare thousands of pounds of marijuana, but consider this: In all of 2011, authorities seized about 20 pounds of heroin in Clark and Washoe counties combined, according to reports from a Nevada-based interagency drug task force.

Heroin seizures in those counties, home to Las Vegas and Reno, jumped to roughly 63 pounds in 2012 and 88 pounds last year, said Kent Bitsko, director of the Nevada High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.

“We have seen heroin explode,” he said. “We’re already on pace to beat last year and that was the record by far.”

Heroin, formerly considered a back-alley drug favored by syringe-toting junkies, quietly crept into the mainstream when the prescription drug epidemic soared this decade. Family medicine cabinets became the starting point.

Derived from poppy plants, heroin gives users a euphoric rush followed by drowsiness that’s similar to the effects of prescription painkillers, such as OxyContin and Vicodin, which are synthetic opioids.

A Nevada drug report issued in September 2010 warned that “young people are turning to heroin when they run into problems getting the opium based pharmaceuticals that they have become addicted to.”

The reason: Wrapped in balloons, a tenth of a gram of heroin costs about $10 — less than an evening movie ticket or a large, one-topping pizza.

It’s also a fraction of the cost of single painkiller pills, which can fetch $1 per milligram on the street, Bitsko said.

“When they can no longer steal from their parents or get them from their friends, they can’t afford it,” he said.

The face of the modern heroin user could be any 18- to 25-year-old, regardless of gender, ethnicity or socioeconomic status, said Dr. Mel Pohl, medical director of the Las Vegas Recovery Center.

Pohl estimates 30 percent of the Las Vegas Recovery Center’s patients are 25 years old or younger and, among them, heroin is the primary drug. These heroin addicts generally come from affluent or reasonably successful families, have previously been functional members of society and often are in relationships, he said.

The privately-owned Montevista Hospital, which provides care for psychiatric patients and substance abusers, has seen a similar surge in the need for heroin addiction treatment. Heroin users account for more than 50 percent of the beds in the hospital’s substance abuse unit, said Larry Espadero, director of chemical dependency.

The hospital recently provided care for a 14-year-old heroin addict, he said.

High school staff members have reported seeing students blatantly smoke heroin in bathrooms or buy the drug from dealers stationing themselves in nearby neighborhoods and parks, Detective Ailee Burnett, who works in Metro Police’s narcotics section, said.

Their observations illustrate the alarming number of teens and young adults flocking to heroin, drawn by its cheaper price and higher potency.

“I’m really worried for young people,” Pohl said. “Really, the potential is to decimate a generation.”

The drug surge also spawns crime concerns. Early last year, officers in northwest Las Vegas busted a burglary ring run by 18- to 21-year-olds, Burnett said. Their motivation: quick money to fund heroin addictions.

• • •

Local drug officials don’t see demand for heroin dropping any time soon. Bitsko likens the problem to squeezing a balloon: As authorities crack down on prescription drug abuse, more and more users will turn to heroin.

And in time, that could mean greater proliferation of heroin in Nevada’s rural areas — a trend already underway in parts of the Midwest.

In Ohio, heroin users are driving 75 to 120 miles to score the illicit drug from dealers closer to large cities, said Staff Lt. Michael Kemmer of the Ohio State Highway Patrol’s criminal patrol unit.

Last year, the Buckeye state’s highway patrol seized 104 pounds of heroin, almost six times the amount it recovered in 2010, Kemmer said. “There’s pretty much a heroin problem in any city, town or village you go to in this state,” he said.

And Las Vegas could be playing a key role in heroin finding its way to the Midwest.

Las Vegas is becoming a “source city,” or drug distribution hub, with dope heading from here to Denver and Chicago, according to a high-ranking narcotics official based in Southern Nevada.

It’s no surprise, given Las Vegas’ proximity to the Mexican border and the lucrative trade. Drug traffickers can sell a pound of heroin for $12,000 to $14,000 in Las Vegas, Bitsko said.

A 2009 analysis by local authorities found that drug runners could make $2,000 per day in heroin sales, totaling $2 million in annual income for drug trafficking organizations. Those estimates stem from an operation that year near Green Valley High School in Henderson, where, a law enforcement official says, drug dealers were peddling heroin to young people and coaxing girls to prostitute themselves for it.

Drug officials believe earnings from heroin sales could be even higher now, allowing trafficking organizations to reap millions of dollars per year.

So who’s dealing the heroin and where is it originating?

Nearly all of the higher-level drug dealers arrested in Southern Nevada are illegal immigrants, and many are importing heroin directly from cartels in Mexico, Bitsko said. But cartels don’t appear to be exerting any command or control over drug trafficking organizations in Las Vegas, he said.

Mexican heroin production appears to be increasing as cartels look for new drug crops to offset income lost by marijuana being grown in the United States.

The two heroin seizures at the end of March led to several arrests . Four suspects were indicted by a Clark County District Court grand jury.

Multiple task forces are assigned to the heroin crisis, including four poly-drug teams, which handle any drug cases that materialize, and a heroin and money laundering task force based in Henderson. One local drug official wants an even greater emphasis placed on heroin investigations with the creation of a team solely focused on targeting its traffickers.

Despite heroin’s rapid growth in Southern Nevada, it still trails the use of methamphetamine, a pleasure-inducing drug that wires users. Last year, the Nevada High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area seized about 582 pounds of methamphetamine in Clark and Washoe counties.

“Everywhere you look, it seems it’s a drug-induced society,” Espadero said. “It’s a real problem because people say, ‘Oh, the heck with it.’ They don’t realize how close to home it is.”

• • •

There is No Hero in Heroin

For more information about the Las Vegas chapter of There is No Hero in Heroin, visit or follow @TINHIHLasVegas on Twitter.

Joe Engle thought it was odd when his oldest son, 19-year-old Reese, didn’t respond to a text message July 21, 2011.

Reese, a pill-popper-turned-heroin addict, had moved back to Las Vegas three days earlier after spending seven months in Ely. He had moved north to clean up his life and, on the surface, it appeared to work: Reese found a job as a cook and began dating a girl in Ely. He always planned to come home, though.

When he did, his past troubles haunted him one final time. Engle found Reese lying on his bed, dead from toxic levels of heroin. An empty syringe lay near him.

But the drug war in the Engle household hadn’t ended. Engle’s second-oldest son, Dylan — who was once secretly taking 40 to 50 pain pills a day — ramped up his heroin use after his brother’s death. When Dylan violated probation in a related case, a judge sent him to a four-and-a-half month stay at Harris Springs Ranch, a WestCare drug rehabilitation program. It didn’t make a dent in his addiction, though. Dylan jumped right back into heroin use when the program ended.

“I thought I could successfully use drugs,” he said. “That was my insanity at the time.”

His family staged another intervention and urged him to move into a sober-living house. Dylan can’t pinpoint exactly what changed this time, but on May 24, 2012, he quit using heroin and says he’s been clean since.

These days Dylan works as a scaffold builder at a chemical plant in Henderson, makes regular visits to the gym and spends time with his family — all of which seemed impossible nearly two years ago.

He considers himself a survivor, which, in the world of drug addiction, translates to a “person in long-term recovery.”

“I feel I’m a productive member of society,” he said.

On the weekends, Dylan helps his father with their new project — raising awareness about heroin addiction through the local chapter of “There’s No Hero In Heroin” that Engle launched in June. The nonprofit was conceived in Tucson, Ariz., by the mother of a heroin addict.

Engle, 46, wants to eliminate the stigma associated with discussing heroin addiction by making it a visible problem. To that end, Engle and other volunteers man a booth twice a month at farmers markets in Henderson and Summerlin, chatting about the problem with anyone willing to listen.

The group also is sponsoring a heroin addict’s rehab program, picking up the monthy $580 tab.

As a father who has witnessed the winning and losing ends of heroin addiction, Engle doesn’t hesitate to offer advice to other parents.

“If you think your kid has a problem with drugs, they probably do,” he said. “Don’t wait. Pay attention.”

    • How to seek help: Know how to spot it

      Addiction to morphine typically starts with teens pillaging family medicine cabinets for narcotic pharmaceutical pills. Once they develop an addiction, particularly to opioid-based painkillers, they can’t afford to pay black-market prices for their pill habit, and heroin becomes the cheaper alternative. Authorities urge parents to be vigilant in monitoring their children’s behavior to spot any signs of drug abuse. Here are a few signs that could indicate heroin abuse among your children:

      • Missing money

      • Constant drowsiness

      • Small eye pupils

      • Unsteady gait

      • Dry and/or itchy skin

      • Tin foil and multicolored balloon remnants

      Source: Detective Aileen Burnett of Metro Police’s narcotics section

    • How to seek help: Tips for helping a loved one

      Broaching the topic of addiction can be a delicate situation. Here are tips for a successful intervention:

      • Plan a specific date, time and location to conduct the intervention with family members or friends. Do not alert the loved one suffering from addiction.

      • Gather information about the person’s addiction and consult with a qualified professional counselor for advice.

      • Write down what each person will say ahead of time to ensure a consistent, rehearsed message and structured treatment plan.

      • Decide what consequences the loved one will face if he or she does not accept treatment. For instance, you might ask him or her to move out of the home.

      • Bring your loved one to the intervention site without revealing the reason and let family members and friends express their concerns. Then present a treatment option. If the loved one accepts treatment, stay engaged with the person’s recovery.

      Source: Mayo Clinic

    • How to seek help: Where to go

      Las Vegas Recovery Center


      Montevista Hospital


      Seven Hills Hospital


      Solutions Recovery Inc.


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