Why Does Dallas Keep Forgetting About its Cheese-Heroin Problem?

On Friday, Dallas police reported that they were investigating the apparent overdose deaths of two students from Thomas Jefferson High School in March and April: 14-year-old Jaime Morales, who was found dead at his home in Northwest Dallas, and an unnamed 17-year-old, found dead in an apartment on Ferguson Road.

Although police are still awaiting toxicology reports, it's been reported that the deaths are the result of cheese heroin, a mixture of black tar and over-the-counter cold medicine that's dogged North Texas for years.

The deaths are tragic, no matter the cause. But if cheese is to blame, we have to ask: Why is everyone caught off-guard yet again? Does Dallas have a persistent case of cheese amnesia?

The Dallas Morning News reported over the weekend that cheese heroin has been a significant problem in DISD since around 2006. But the reality is that overdose deaths from cheese have occurred regularly in the metroplex every few years, starting in the 1990s in Plano. Back then, some 20 people -- all high-school age or just barely older -- died of overdoses. In 1998, 29 people were indicted in a suspected heroin ring, accused of providing the fatal drugs. Most of them were the same age as the overdose victims.

Almost exactly a year ago, the same story played itself out again in Flower Mound, where 17 people, all under the age of 21, were indicted for drug crimes after the deaths of three teenagers from heroin overdoses. Twelve of the defendants were accused of conspiring to distribute heroin; three were alleged to have driven down to Dallas to procure the drug before mixed it with cold medicine to produce cheese, a damp, snortable powder.

(One young Flower Mound resident, a former user, told me that while cheese is technically made with an antihistamine ingredient, diphenyhdramine, that's supposed to boost the effects of heroin, it's just as common to mix it with Xanax. Either way, it's a double dose of depressants, and very, very dangerous.)

The Flower Mound case produced a short, intense blitz of media attention, helped along by the fact that the defendants were young, affluent and predominantly white. News vans camped out to catch glimpses of the teens making their court dates, gathering footage for ominous stories about the return of cheese. Then, just as quickly, there was silence. (According to court documents, the defendants in the Flower Mound case have all accepted plea bargains, the details of which are sealed.)

But as we discussed in a cover story in July of that year, cheese has never really gone anywhere. Since Plano, arrests and deaths relating to cheese have been reported without fail every year or two, in communities rich and poor. But each time, there's the same sense of disbelief, the same warnings about a teen drug craze sweeping the school system, the same need to redefine the word "cheese" for a new crop of clueless parents. And with each arrest, police seem confident they've "stunted" the supply of cheese into their communities, as a Flower Mound officer put it in an interview a year ago.

But the reality is that cheese, while relatively rare outside of North Texas, never seems to completely disappear from the drug diets of young users here, even if it vanishes quickly from the radar screens of the adults around them. As we reported last year, between 1996 and 2010, users who reported snorting their heroin increased from 4 percent to 16, while the average age of inhalers dropped from 30 to 27. Cheese users are getting younger, and they're getting more numerous.

The sad pattern, it seems, is that adults forget about cheese, at least until another round of arrests and deaths hit the news. In the meantime, a new crop of young users emerge.

"Unfortunately, drug abuse is marked by 'generational forgetting,'" Jane Maxwell, a drug researcher at UT Austin told us last year. "And over time, new users emerge who know nothing about the dangers and they start using. It's sad and discouraging."

Craig Nuckles at Timberlawn Mental Health Services told the Morning News they routinely see two to three new young heroin detox patients per week. (Both Nuckles and Maxwell also make clear their dislike of the word "cheese," which they say is a cute, euphemistic name for a deadly drug.)

What makes the Thomas Jefferson deaths so heartbreaking, if cheese was actually involved, is that a small group of now-graduated students worked very hard to spread the word about the dangers of the drug. A D Magazine story from earlier this year detailed their efforts, under the now-depressing headline, "How Thomas Jefferson High School Students Kicked the Cheese Habit."

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Anna Merlan
Contact: Anna Merlan