In Suburban Dallas, Loosening "Cheese" Heroin's Deadly Grip

Another round of deaths have another round of North Texas parents trying to wipe out a deadly combination of heroin and cold medicine.

The implication was that Flower Mound was experiencing something new and dark, an evil freshly imported from the big city. But in reality, the busts were just the latest turn in a long-running storyline in North Texas' suburbs and small towns, one that's played out several times over the last 15 years.

Plano is the best-known example. In the mid-1990s, around 20 people died of heroin overdoses there, many of them high-school age or barely older. In 1998, 29 people were indicted for their part in a suspected heroin ring, the majority of them young adults from Plano. The arrests sparked a media assault, including a Rolling Stone story called "Texas Heroin Massacre" and a Newsweek story headlined "Heroin High."

Less publicized, smaller outbreaks of heroin-related deaths and arrests have occurred with regularity ever since. Almost every time, the same type of heroin is labeled the culprit: "cheese," a snortable mixture of black tar and, typically, diphenhydramine, the antihistamine used in Benadryl. It's a damp powder that can be yellow, brown or white.

Patrol Division Captain Wess Griffin, Flower Mound Police. "As far as the [heroin] supply into Flower Mound, I think we greatly affected it," he says. "We definitely stunted it here."
Taryn Walker
Patrol Division Captain Wess Griffin, Flower Mound Police. "As far as the [heroin] supply into Flower Mound, I think we greatly affected it," he says. "We definitely stunted it here."

In 2006, The Dallas Morning News reported a "new drug" was plaguing Dallas' city schools: "a cheap combo of heroin and Tylenol PM," which was found at 11 Dallas schools and had killed an 18-year-old West Dallas woman. The Fort-Worth Star Telegram told a nearly identical story a month later, about an 18-year-old who died after overdosing on "cheese." Later that year, the Morning News speculated heroin was making a post-Plano epidemic comeback (despite evincing unfamiliarity with the drug just a month or two before), citing four deaths and 15 non-fatal overdoses in Plano and Frisco in the previous 14 months. Children as young as 11 were being found with "cheese," the paper reported.

In 2007, a group of grieving parents of teenage overdose victims founded the Starfish Foundation, dedicated to educating youth and eradicating the heroin scourge. The same year, the Dallas County Medical Examiner's Office found that the number of kids who had died from "cheese" overdoses in Dallas County rivaled the number in Plano during the height of the problem there: 22 dead by the middle of summer, including a ninth-grader. In 2008, three men were indicted on charges of killing a 19-year-old woman by giving her a fatal dose of "cheese."

"It's a starter way to use heroin," Jane Maxwell, a researcher at UT Austin's Addiction Research Institute, says of the drug. "Not as strong, and you don't need to inject," lessening the drug's stigma. New users also "believe the old lie that if you snort it, it's not addictive," she says. The antihistamines also depress the central nervous system, boosting the effects of the heroin.

The drug has had a uniquely stubborn hold on North Texas. Last year, the New York Daily News reported that federal officials had warned New York's police force to watch for the drug. Otherwise, it's barely visible in news reports outside of North Texas.

But despite its regular place in the region's headlines, the resulting disbelief is the same each time the drug hits. The term "cheese" is redefined over and over in news stories on the latest "epidemic," and the same set of terms are predictably tossed about: "starter heroin," "kid killer," the "latest teen drug craze," coming soon to a 'burb near you.

Rob Reid, a 30-year-old recovering addict and pastor at Rockpointe Church in Flower Mound, lived in Plano in the 1990s. What's going on around him now strikes him as uncomfortably similar to what he saw as a teenager: drugs, dead teens, indictments, a round of intense, brief media attention, and then, just as quickly, silence. "It's been three weeks and the flash in the pan has already occurred," he said in early June, just after the indictments were trumpeted by prosecutors. In Plano, he says, it took much longer for the community, and the media, to catch on. "Nobody got the whole Plano thing until three years later," he says. "People looked back and said, 'Wow, 18 kids have died, this is a real problem.'"

The cultural amnesia doesn't stop with parents. "Unfortunately, drug abuse is marked by 'generational forgetting,'" Maxwell, the drug researcher, says. "And over time, new users emerge who know nothing about the dangers and they start using. It's sad and discouraging."

Just last month, Maxwell's research institute released a report on substance abuse in Texas. Researchers reported that heroin users keep getting younger here, and "cheese" continues to grow its market share. Between 1996 and last year, users who reported snorting their heroin increased from 4 percent to 16, while the average age of inhalers dropped from 30 to 27.

Maxwell is leery of the term "cheese," though, a name she says sounds flippant and downplays the fact that it's heroin these kids were selling, and heroin that killed Brett O'Keefe and the two others. (All three men had both heroin and diphenydramine in their systems when they died, according to the medical examiner's reports. Kathy O'Keefe says her son actually died from shooting heroin, not snorting cheese, although he had used the snortable mix before. He had several other drugs in his system when he died, including a large amount of Xanax)

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