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Drug Cartels Thrive on Ultimate Consumers: Addicts

Chris Lehman

Editor's Note: Drug traffickers are doing big business up and down the West Coast. When you go by freeway, you’re driving a Silk Road of sorts for heroin, meth, and cocaine. This export industry is evolving. Drug experts say heroin is back on the rise, fueled in part by prescription drug abuse.

This week, in a series we call Border to Border Drugs, we’re reporting on drug-trafficking rings that rely on every freeway in the West. In part two of the series, correspondent Chris Lehman reports on how the supply side of this business may change, but the demand remains strong.


Heavy-duty prescription painkillers have something in common with heroin. They're both opiates, and the effect they have on people who get hooked is similar. One difference? Heroin is usually cheaper and easier to get. That was true for Portlander Kevin Lehl. He says he got hooked as a teen when he was prescribed opiates to treat chronic pain.

"I was in love with it from the very beginning,” Lehl said.

Lehl says hunting for pills turned into a full-time obsession. He eventually made the switch to heroin. It was everywhere.

"Once you're kind of like in this opiate world, you kind of know people that know people that know people,” he said.

Lehl says he's been clean since the beginning of the year. He's now taking community college classes in hopes of becoming a drug counselor. He's also found a new part of town to live in.

There’s an old joke that there’s a coffee shop on every corner in Portland. For Lehl, heroin was actually more convenient to get than coffee. 

"In my old neighborhood, there's probably like seven people within a five block radius that sells heroin and pills,” Lehl said.

But unlike the fiercely-competitive coffee market, drug experts say heroin dealers don't really need to advertise.

"They don't push their drug because this drug sells itself,” said Lee Hoffer, an anthropologist who teaches at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.

Hoffer’s specialty is the heroin market, and he studies it the old-fashioned way; he just walks up to drug dealers and starts asking questions.

"Yeah, it's not much more beyond that,” he said.

Hoffer says drug dealers generally rely on word-of-mouth advertising. It's like moving to a new town, he says.

"You're going to ask your friend, ‘Where's a good mechanic? Or what doctor do you use?’ This is how people find heroin dealers,” he said.

And after a while, those dealers and other users become part of your social circle. That's what happened to Portland heroin user Linda Wickerham.

"Everybody kind of watches out for each other, because they know what it's like to be sick when you don't have your heroin. And so even if I have a little bit, I'll share it with my other two friends because I know what it's like, being sick,” she said.

Wickerham didn't come to heroin through prescription painkillers; an acquaintance offered her a dose about four years ago.

"I tried it once and have been on it ever since. I can't stop. It's hard,” she said.

I met her at a clinic run by Oregon Health and Science University that tries to help people addicted to opiates. Wickerham says she's come here about a half-dozen times in an effort to shake the habit, but it’s not going so well. I ask her when’s the last time she used.

"Today. Today, I used,” she said.

Wickerham says she'd really like to quit. But going without heroin has proved to be just too difficult.

"If I don't use, I'm going to be sick and that's a whole new different ballgame there. You can't even imagine what it's like when you don't have your heroin how sick you get."

And in a nutshell, that's why the business of selling heroin is so brisk. OHSU doctor Amanda Risser says addicts routinely tell her that trying to quit involves a willpower they just don't possess.

"The withdrawal syndrome is so awful and so…I mean, when folks describe how they feel when they're in withdrawal, people really do feel like they're going to die,” Risser said.

But for many users, the withdrawal symptoms aren't the only thing standing in the way of quitting. They actually like the drug, says Caleb Banta-Green, a researcher at the University of Washington's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute.

"People begin wanting heroin more than they care about food and drink, and love, and things like that,” he said.
And Banta-Green says dealers know how to tap into that addiction. Like any good salesperson, they offer discounts to keep their best customers happy.

"The issue with heroin is that most people who use heroin use pretty regularly. They might use easily 20 days out of the month, so having a regular steady customer might be worth selling for a little bit less, because you're really working on getting repeated sales,” he said.

For Wickerham, the worst part about her addiction is the guilt she feels about allowing the drug to separate her from her family. She says she rarely sees her two daughters and her grandson because heroin has thrown her life into chaos.

“People say, ‘You must not want to be with them that bad because you're still doing heroin.’ But it's not like that. It's not that easy. But for me that is my rock bottom—not being with them every day. Because either I'm by myself or with my friends that do heroin. And that's not the kind of life I want,” she said.

But it's the kind of life heroin producers and dealers want her to have. Because Wickerham and countless other addicts are the ultimate consumers—the kind who can’t stop buying the product even when they don't want it anymore. 

Chris Lehman graduated from Temple University with a journalism degree in 1997. He landed his first job less than a month later, producing arts stories for Red River Public Radio in Shreveport, Louisiana. Three years later he headed north to DeKalb, Illinois, where he worked as a reporter and announcer for NPR–affiliate WNIJ–FM. In 2006 he headed west to become the Salem Correspondent for the Northwest News Network.