Confessions of a High School Heroin Dealer

This article first appeared on Substance.com


Heroin is news right now, and for lots of first-time users—often switching over from more expensive painkiller habits—the price is right. This so-called “new wave” is reaching geographic and socioeconomic places that were never associated with the drug before—professionals, suburbanites and college students. But when it gets a hold of you, addiction has the same old consequences.

Here in federal prison I’m surrounded by some of the casualties of this not-so-new heroin wave, so I thought I’d get one typical perspective among the many.

I sat down with Matthew, a 24-year-old white boy from the suburbs of Dallas, Texas. He’s a slight young man, quiet and respectful but determined. To look at him, you could believe he was still in high school. He tells me that his parents were raised in a trailer park but worked hard so that he wouldn’t be. He’s been locked up for the past three years, convicted of possession of heroin with intent to distribute.

“I was just out of high school and I had never done heroin,” Matthew tells me. “But there was all this powdered heroin going around high schools and the younger crowd, and it was cheap. They called it ‘cheese.’”

Like a lot of people who start taking drugs of any kind, Matthew began experimenting socially, trying to be a part of the in-crowd. “I started out snorting,” he says. “Most people start snorting. At all the parties, everyone is looking for some cheese.”

Still, heroin costs money, so if you don’t have it, you better start dealing if you want to maintain your buzz. “I started selling twenties, thirties, whatever,” Matthew says. “Mainly to friends and people at my high school. Just some small-time dealing. It’s $100 a gram for tar but I could get a ball [an “eight ball,” about 3.5 grams] for $180. I would buy it in tar and turn one gram into six grams of powder.”

Problem solved? “One day I was sitting there—with five or six grams of tar, money and a bunch of friends around me—and I thought that was what I wanted,” says Matthew. “Except I still wasn’t happy. I wanted to get higher. On impulse, I went out and bought some rigs. I thought that’s what I wanted.”

All of this had happened fast: “I went from snorting to shooting in like six months. I never thought I’d be using a needle. People started off looking for powder and before you know it, you’re going to upgrade.” Once he started mainlining, his habit grew worse. “I would bang whatever,” he says. “I would shoot any drugs I could get my hands on.”

By now, selling heroin was how Matthew made his living, as well as supporting his own habit. He had a growing reputation and was selling to more people. He was very popular—people looked at him differently because he was the dope man. He was still living with his parents but mainly hung out at party houses with friends, plying his trade. His family and some of his old high school friends were concerned about his lifestyle, but Matthew was doing what he wanted and liked the attention. Plus, he was in a heroin daze.

It ended when he made some sales to an undercover agent who infiltrated his circle of friends. The DEA was targeting dealers selling to high school students—including those, like Matthew, who were barely out of high school themselves. He’d been using and selling heroin for little more than two years by the time of his arrest.

Being arrested was a big shock to him. You never think you’re going to get caught, and when you have a federal indictment staring you in the face and you’re looking at hard time, it’s not pretty.

Matthew’s family wasn’t surprised that he got busted, but they were surprised that he was sent away for years—and to a federal prison. He says they were actually relieved that he would have a chance to get off heroin and maybe get his life together. To any parents, having their son in prison is better than having him dead from an overdose, and plenty of those are happening right now.

Matthew went through withdrawals while being held in the county jail, but didn’t find them too severe. And perhaps surprisingly, trapped in the modern industrial-prison clusterfuck, he was able to abstain from heroin—even though it’s widely available here. He went through the Bureau of Prisons’ Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP) and finds that the temptation to use in prison just isn’t that great.

“It’s too expensive,” he explains. “It’s a debt. Too many dudes getting smashed for not paying their bills. I didn’t want that to be me.” He admits, “I know I have a problem, but I also know how it is here. Why would I put myself out there to get my time fucked up? I drank and smoked [marijuana] in here, but no heroin. It’s not worth it.”

Now that Matthew is about to go home, he doesn’t know which way it will go for him. What didn’t make sense in prison still makes sense to him on the street. And in Dallas, where Matthew is returning, heroin is apparently even more prevalent now than when he came in. ”I know it’s going to be hard. I know it’s going to be around,” he says. “But it’s not the life I want to live. I have to figure out what to do.”

In a prison cell, Matthew has had time to think things over, and although he doesn’t want to use again, he knows there’s a high chance he will. ”I feel my chances are medium to go back out there and stay clean,” he says. “I don’t want to use heroin. I know if I use anything, I’m hit. It’s all or nothing for me.”

To increase his chances, Matthew believes he has to change who he associates with. “I’m going to surround myself with different people,” he says. “I cut off a lot of my old friends. I know if I am around that scene I will use. I got a girl but she uses, gets clean, uses again—I’m not sure if I should even be around her.”

“Everyone is expecting me to come out with this mentality of when I first got locked up: I was sending out letters, telling everyone who the snitches were on my case. But maybe it’s a good thing I came to prison. It made me realize that heroin isn’t a good life outlook. It’s probably the best thing that could have happened to me.”

But you get a sense of just what Matthew is up against from what he says next: “You got me fucked up just talking about it. It’s scary. I want to shoot up right now.”

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