Caught in the throes of heroin addiction, Eric Casto, 32, moved from Greenville into his parents’ Myrtle Beach home specifically to kick his debilitating opiate habit.
He’s gone cold turkey since April refusing to get hooked on the ween-you-off-heroin drug Methadone, but he didn’t exactly relocate to the squeaky clean land of sunshine, rainbows, bible study and unicorns, aka “the Family Beach” that local tourism boosters want everyone to believe.
At his wits end, owing dealers large sums of money, with his marriage crumbling and realizing he was a physically-present-but-emotionally-absent dad to his three children, Casto came to the Grand Strand for a change of scenery, the chance for recovery and the unconditional loving support of parental units.
“The reason I came here was to be with my parents,” said Casto, who is now studying electronics at ITT Technical Institute in Myrtle Beach. “I was strung out real bad.”
Yet, he may have unwittingly landed in a nest of temptation, a hotbed of heroin abuse and trafficking.
Mirroring national trends - heroin - in powder form and its black, sticky tar form - seems to be everywhere, including the shores of our seemingly tranquil seaside hamlet.
Back in 1998, the Dandy Warhols hit the charts with the catchy pop-rock track, “Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth,” featuring the lyrical hook: “I never thought you’d be a junkie because heroin is so passe.”
Well, not anymore…
It may not be cool or chic, but heroin - smack, the brown horse, skag - is back in the headlines with the recent overdose of well-respected actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, 46, who was found dead with a needle still in his arm, and 50 bags of the stuff in his New York City apartment.
But it’s not simply celebrities getting hooked on the junk at an increased clip.
Nationwide, the drug choice of strung-out rock stars of yore has come back into the picture from the streets of Manhattan and swamps of Jersey to Myrtle Beach’s Ocean Boulevard, to U.S. 17 rolling through Brunswick County, N.C., Horry County’s adjacent northern neighbor over the border.
In fact, Brunswick County - the buffer between the immediate Myrtle Beach metro area and Wilmington, N.C.’s southern suburbs - has seen a recent heroin boom.
“In 2012, we seized 3,405 dosage units of heroin. In 2013, we seized 8,728 dosage units of heroin. That is about 2-and-a-half times more in 2013. I think it is pretty safe to say that heroin is a huge problem. I will tell you that this is a problem that Sheriff (John) Ingram and the BCSO is very committed to fighting,” said Emily Flax, Public Information Officer with the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Department.
Back home in Horry County, marijuana is still king, according to local narcs, and cocaine comes in second, but heroin is gaining ground and jockeying to be No. 2.
“Heroin is running a close second to cocaine and its derivatives,” said Dean Bishop, Deputy Commander of the 15th Circuit Drug Enforcement Unit (DEU), an interagency task force that operates under the Solicitor’s office and includes investigators from various law enforcement jurisdictions in Horry and Georgetown counties.
Bishop said Horry County has not seen the recent spike in heroin that northern neighbor Brunswick County did in 2013, but that heroin busts and trafficking remains steady.
The 15th Circuit DEU seized 909.42 grams of powdered heroin (just shy of a kilo) and 81 dosage units of black tar heroin in 2013, compared to 1,371.5 grams of powder and 60 units of black tar in 2012 and 1,162.4 grams of powder nabbed in 2011 (no black tar that year), with the majority of these figures representing Horry County, Bishop said.
Is that a noteworthy amount?
“That’s pretty significant,” said Bishop, while poring over the numbers.
He said the amount of powdered heroin seized in 2013 had a street value of $273,000 and the confiscated black tar would go for approximately $2,500.
“It’s easy to get, and it’s cheap,” said Bishop. “The price range is as cheap as $15 per dosage and it can go as high as $35.”
The popular theory - and supported by Bishop and his counterpart Lt. Steve Lanier, who is charge of the Brunswick County Sheriff Department’s Drug Enforcement Unit - is that users have turned to heroin because opiate-based prescription drugs such as OxyContin are getting harder to come by and more expensive.
“It’s very common for us to come across heroin daily,” said Lanier, adding that dealers shuttle their shipments up and down U.S. 17 between Wilmington and Myrtle Beach.
Another theory belies the crackdown on prescription drugs, but posits that people are getting hooked on doctor-approved meds, which become a gateway to heroin, and many users switch it up, going back and forth between legal and illegal doses - whichever they can get their hands on.
Whichever theory you subscribe to, prescription opiates are heroin’s intoxicating dance partner.
The needle and the spoon
Heroin is derived from morphine, which is extracted from the Asian poppy plant - and it usually appears as a white or brown powder and also comes in black, sticky tar form, and comes primarily from Afghanistan and Mexico.
“Heroin can be injected, inhaled by snorting or sniffing, or smoked,” according to drugabuse.gov. “All three routes of administration deliver the drug to the brain very rapidly, which contributes to its health risks and to its high risk for addiction, which is a chronic relapsing disease caused by changes in the brain and characterized by uncontrollable drug-seeking no matter the consequences.”
Heroin use has long been associated with the needle and spoon for shooting up - and also snorting is popular, but according to Horry County Police’s Narcotics Division, there has been a shift to smoking it, as users perceive it to be safer, and because of the drug’s increased purity in recent times.
According to drugabuse.gov, “In 2011, 4.2 million Americans aged 12 or older (or 1.6 percent) had used heroin at least once in their lives. It is estimated that about 23 percent of individuals who use heroin become dependent on it.”
Almost comically, though, the National Drug Intelligence Center’s South Carolina Drug Threat assessment issued back in 2001 underestimates the coming storm: “Heroin availability and abuse are a minimal problem in the state. Virtually all heroin users are concentrated in the urban areas of South Carolina.”
By the next year, 2002, this assessment included the “coastal regions” of the state, “primarily in cities and areas frequented by tourists along the Atlantic Coast.”
Ahah, blame the tourists! Wait, that’s another story...
We inquired with the state’s top cops - the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) - about the number of statewide heroin-related busts, but at press time the agency had not responded.
However, we found this recent quote from SLED’s chief on the Web site of Charlotte, N.C.’s NPR station WFAE referring to a four-pound heroin bust in Lancaster County in the Upstate: "Unfortunately heroin is coming back. We’re starting to see more heroin today,” said South Carolina Law Enforcement Division chief Mark Keel. “And a lot of that has to do with narcotic drugs or prescription drugs that people are getting taking place for those drugs because prescription drugs can be very expensive."
The S.C. Department of Alcohol & Other Drug Abuse Services reports that heroin cases have gone up and down, with 579 people seeking help for their addiction in 2003, down to 429 such patients in 2010, and then back up to 516 in 2012, the latest figures available. In the same report, heroin was the fifth-most abused substance in the Palmetto State from 2003-2012, trailing only alcohol, marijuana/hashish, cocaine/crack, and the dubious “other opiates and synthetics” category, and ranking higher than the more publicized Methamphetamine.
And the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) reports that 13 people in South Carolina died of heroin overdose in 2012, the latest figures available, compared to 49 cocaine-induced deaths, and 27 overdoses of alcohol in the same time frame.
Heroin is so passe?
There’s also a pop culture tie to heroin, with many rock stars, actors and authors getting addicted - some fatally - and many works of art dedicated to the drug’s deadly hook, from the mid-90s British flick “Trainspotting” to William S. Burroughs’ “Junkie” to The Velvet Underground’s not-so-subtle ode, “Heroin.”
“ Heroin, be the death of me
Heroin, it’s my wife and it’s my life
Because a mainer to my vein
Leads to a center in my head
And then I’m better off and dead,” sings Lou Reed in the 1967 VU classic.
Others, such as Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Anthony Kiedis and Motley Crue’s Nikki Sixx have had dangerous dances with Mr. Brownstone and lived to tell about it. Kiedis’s band mate Hillel Slovak, the Chili Peppers’ original guitarist, was not so lucky dying of a heroin overdose in 1988.
Hoffman, who won an Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of the title character in the 2005 film “Capote,” it seems, is the latest in a long line of talented artists to succumb to the needle and spoon, including another actor, 31-year-old Cory Monteith of “Glee” fame, who died in July from a double whammy OD of heroin and booze.
But does Hoffman’s heroin overdose mean that heroin is cool and faddy again, or a rich and pampered celebrity’s folly?
Heroin doesn’t care about your socioeconomic or educational background, how many Instagram followers you have, or who your daddy is.
“It doesn’t see any race, color or creed,” said Lt. Lanier.
Hoffman’s death is atypical of the new-fangled heroin junky, an anomaly, some experts say.
“Heroin is no longer the domain of gaunt junkies shooting up with dirty needles in bombed-out inner-city buildings. It’s turning up in high schools, colleges and suburban neighborhoods,” reads an excerpt from a Feb. 8 story by Charleston’s Post & Courier.
But the detox, nightmare demonic baby scene from 1996’s “Trainspotting” alone is enough for this writer never want to go near heroin - so what exactly is the lure?
“There’s nothing like it,” said Casto, who said his right arm is still kind of discolored from track marks. “It’s Euphoria - a total escape. When the needle hits, it’s instant.”
And it’s highly addictive. And it becomes all about feeding the routine and maintenance, said Casto, who had a $200 a day habit.
“I used to do a little, but a little wouldn’t do it, so a little got more and more,” sings Axl Rose in the 1987 Guns ‘n’ Roses classic “Mr. Brownstone.”
The 15th Circuit DEU’s Bishop, who has more than 20 years in the field, is mystified about heroin since the dangers are well-known. “How good can something feel? It scares me.”
A recent New York Times headline spawned by Hoffman’s death screams, “Prescription Painkillers Seen as Gateway to Heroin.”
The narcotics cops we talked with agree.
At some point, Bishop said, most people are going to go to the doctor, and many are prescribed painkillers such as Vicodin, OxyContin and oxycodone, and many patients get hooked on those painkillers. Some doctors have labeled these prescription opiates as “heroin lite” - and they’re more readily available than ever.
“Since I was 14, I had always taken opiates, painkillers, OxyContin, all that junk,” said Casto.
They whet the appetite for opiates, but when the prescription runs out - where’s the user going to turn?
“Prescription opiates open the door,” said Bishop. “They get hooked on opiates, and heroin is the next thing.”
A $20 bag of heroin can be much cheaper than an expensive prescription - and you don’t have to get a doctor’s signature, and jump through hoops with insurance companies or pharmacies.
“You can get the same type of high without the red tape,” said Lt. Lanier.
Since prescription opiates have been tied to heroin, Bishop also gave us the local numbers for seized prescription dosages by the DEU.
In 2013 there were 2,132.5 dosage units, representing a street value of $53,000 confiscated by the DEU in the Myrtle Beach area, compared to a little more than 2,300 doses in 2012 and 752 units in 2011, Bishop said.
And another drug associated with heroin is methadone, which is often prescribed to heroin addicts to help them through the debilitating withdrawals and without the destructive side effects. But it can be habit forming, too, critics say.
Having one of the state’s handful of methadone clinics, the once-controversial Center of Hope, on George Bishop Parkway just west of Myrtle Beach helped Casto in his initial road to recovery.
“At first I liked it,” Casto said of his experience with methadone. “It was legal - and I was in no danger of overdose because it was the same dose every day.”
But he began encountering folks who had been standing in line to get their methadone doses on a daily basis for five and 10 years, and Casto made up his mind and said, “I can’t do that” - and went cold turkey.
They tried to make me go to rehab...
But recovery from heroin addiction is a constant process, rife with temptation.
“I feel like I know I’m never out of the woods,” said Casto, who at one point during his heroin-shooting days hit a nerve in his left arm, rendering it useless from the elbow down.
He’s since recovered the full use of his arm. “It took a few months, but it’s fine now.”
He was open to sharing his story with Weekly Surge in hopes of reaching others struggling with heroin addiction.
“My recovery depends on helping others in recovery and I see this as a chance to do that,” he said. “I’m glad you’re doing this story.”
The grip of heroin has also touched the lives of former Weekly Surge contributor Eric “Big E” Rutherford and his family members as a 23-year-old extended relative recently lost her fight with addiction.
“Megan was 23-years-old and lost her battle with addiction earlier this month at her parents home in Surfside Beach. She left behind a 5-year-old daughter, her mother, father and a sister, in-laws and two young nephews,” wrote Rutherford in an e-mail. “She had just come out of her third attempt at rehab and seemed to be doing really well. She was talking about getting into college and reaching out to clean friends when she had the urge to use.”
But her mother noticed that Megan had spent an inordinate amount of time in the bathtub one day and began knocking on the door.
“When Megan didn’t answer her mom got the dad to break into the bathroom,” wrote Rutherford. “She was unresponsive and there was a used heroin needle in the room. Her father tried to revive her. When paramedics arrived they had to tell Megan’s dad to stop CPR because she was already gone. Later, an autopsy would reveal Megan’s heart had stopped, ruling out an accidental drowning. The heroin had killed her.”
Rutherford attended her funeral with family and friends.
“The family couldn’t call it a funeral, though,” Rutherford remarked. “They called it a celebration of Megan’s life hoping to focus on the good times, but never denying the circumstances that took Megan’s life.”
Like Casto, Rutherford said the family decided to share their story in hopes of helping others.
Casto says that addicts need not be afraid of seeking help and the inevitable dope sickness that sets in during rehab.
“Don’t be afraid to be sick - go through the withdrawals. Life on the other side is worth it...and try to find God.”