By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Wait. Wrong cheese. And wrong crisis. Calm yourself, but just a bit.
We were instantly suspicious when we read the News' report about "cheese heroin," a "new form" of black tar heroin that's cut with Tylenol PM, rampaging through the local teen population. (Newspapers love scary drug trend stories.) Does cutting heroin with Tylenol PM, which contains an antihistamine, make it more lethal? Are the 17 deaths among kids younger than 18 linked to cheese in the past 27 months atypical? Should druggies insist that their smack be cut with powdered milk? The Morning News' story begged those questions.
"This is nothing new in the sense of a new product," says Dr. Jane C. Maxwell with the Gulf Coast Addiction Technology Transfer Center at UT-Austin, which tracks drug trends in the state. Cutting heroin with the antihistamine diphenhydramine has long been common, and sticky black tar heroin has to be cut to be inhaled. Nevertheless, she adds, "I think we're on the cusp of an epidemic, but I wouldn't call it a cheese epidemic."
The numbers Maxwell sees suggest that more and younger drug users are falling for the notion that you won't get addicted to heroin if you snort rather than inject it. Wrong. In 1996, she says, 4 percent of people seeking treatment for heroin addiction in the state inhaled the drug. That number was 17 percent in 2006. It gets worse: Not only do you get just as addicted from inhaling, junkies hooked by the nose eventually take up the needle, with all its charming side effects: hepatitis, HIV, collapsed veins, etc.
The county medical examiner's office reports 13 drug-related deaths among juveniles in 2006, two of them with all the specfic components of cheese, though it's not what the heroin is cut with but the heroin that kills you, and that's what we should be talking about. Stories focusing on a "new form" of heroin confuse the issue and might put ideas into young heads, leading to copycat cheese makers, Maxwell says.
Still, "something's going on," she says. Call it marketing. Cheese is cheap. The popularity of snorting smack was a trend experts spotted among yuppies on the East Coast back in 2000, Maxwell says. Like new hairstyles and music, those East Coast hipster trends eventually hit Texas. Welcome to eventually.