Health & Beauty | February 2007
|'Cheese' Using, Abusing Youths|
Jason Trahan - Dallas Morning News
Same drug, different package. Younger dealers, too.
|DEA officials are investigating the growth of 'cheese,' a powder combination of heroin and Tylenol PM ingredients. (Dallas Independent School District)|
Law enforcement experts say high school kids some of whom are gang members appear to make up the loosely organized packagers and sellers of "cheese," the latest incarnation of heroin making its way into mostly Hispanic schools in northwest Dallas.
The heroin that is being cut with Tylenol PM to make cheese comes from the same sources that have been funneling the drug north from Mexico for years, according to police. But cheese represents the latest attempt to hook a new generation of customers, most of whom grew up with "Just Say No" commercials and are, by and large, averse to sticking needles in their arms the traditional delivery method for heroin.
"These are street-level people who have figured out a way to make a little bit of heroin go a long way, and make a lot of money," said James Capra, special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Dallas office, which is working with the Dallas Independent School District's police force to combat the growing problem.
"These are monsters that are doing this. They're marketing to kids."
Authorities attribute four deaths the most recent a 15-year-old Marsh Middle School student last weekend to cheese, all within the past year.
So far, the dealers' handiwork a powder known to be snorted in school bathrooms or in the backs of classrooms has resulted in about 200 criminal cases against students most of them Hispanics from Marsh and Cary middle schools and W.T. White, North Dallas and Thomas Jefferson high schools.
Rosemarie Allen, DISD's associate superintendent for student support and special services, said the district realizes cheese use "has surfaced as a major concern." She said the district has been working to inform parents and students of the dangers and provide drug counselors, and DISD is working with law enforcement agencies to address the problem.
'Heroin is heroin ...'
There's nothing new about marketing drugs to kids, experts say.
Years ago, a similar product was called "chiva," a mixture of heroin and brown sugar. Like cheese, chiva was particularly popular in largely Hispanic communities, recalled Phil Jordan, the former head of the Dallas DEA office.
"In the end, cheese is nothing more than heroin, and heroin is heroin, is heroin," he said. "Drug pushers are no different than advertisers. They're constantly looking for new ways to market their poison, and so now they call it cheese. But it's the same old garbage, different name and deadlier."
Experts say that Mexican heroin mainly comes from the states of Sinaloa and Durango and is smuggled into the Dallas area through either the Nuevo Laredo-Laredo area up the Interstate 35 corridor or the Ciudad Juαrez-El Paso port of entry.
While it's widely assumed by most drug trafficking experts that every Mexican drug cartel is moving heroin, the Dallas DEA believes there is no evidence that the cheese phenomenon is being orchestrated by any major cartel.
The question remains: Who, then, is the marketing genius? Police would love to know. And they're closer than ever to finding out.
The DEA is now sharing intelligence it has built up over the years on the local heroin trade with Dallas schools' police investigators, who are in turn getting information from kids they have arrested who are buying and using cheese.
DEA officials say they will allow school investigators to use their testing equipment. DISD police say they have been stymied in part by a lack of drug-testing equipment that has forced them to rely on an overbooked local Department of Public Safety drug lab.
Investigators hope that the wave of publicity that the cheese problem has generated will produce new leads that can help authorities track down the adult heroin dealers selling to teens.
On Thursday, cheese was discussed at a meeting between U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and North Texas law enforcement officers sharing ideas on gang initiatives. On Monday, school district police plan to release a public hotline for tips about cheese.
While the heroin is imported, cheese is homegrown, mixed by mostly Hispanic teenagers who tend to distribute it to their peers in neighborhood campuses, according to DISD police Officer Jeremy Liebbe, who has tracked cheese since it was first discovered here two years ago.
While many of the mixers are gang members, it's a leap to say that gangs are in control of the distribution at schools where cheese is most prevalent, Officer Liebbe said.
"I haven't seen any hierarchical structure in the mixer level, not like true heroin dealers who have stash houses and runners and are very organized," he said.
On the bright side, that means there probably won't be a spate of deadly turf wars mirroring the violence often associated with rival drug dealers. The down side is that virtually any kid without vigilant parents and a criminal bent can get involved.
Easy to get in
A mixer can get into business with a relatively small capital investment maybe a few weeks of wages saved slinging Happy Meals at McDonald's.
"Juvenile dealers are purchasing black tar [heroin] at $20 to $30 at a time, from adult heroin dealers," Officer Liebbe said. An average dealer can double their money rather quickly, he said.
Most, though, aren't in it for the profits.
"A lot of our cheese dealers are dealing in a way to support their own habits," Officer Liebbe said.
That was the story Dallas police heard from a young man arrested early Thursday morning walking near an apartment complex on Clydedale Drive near Northwest Highway and Harry Hines Boulevard. Police took him into custody after he dropped a folded piece of notebook paper, a common way of carrying the drug. The youth admitted to the officers it contained cheese and told them he is an addict who has been making it at home and selling it at school for the past two years, reports show.
"A huge amount of them are unsupervised children," said Carlos Cruz, an anti-drug and anti-gang counselor, explaining how the drug has hit Hispanic families hardest.
"Their parents work 10 to 12 hours a day, so it's easy to hide," he said. "They know when their parents are coming home and when they come home they are exhausted and just want to go to sleep. They ask them how they are doing, how school is, give them a kiss on the cheek and go to sleep."
One consequence of having drug-addicted teens "cutting" the drug is wildly inconsistent doses of cheese. Some may contain virtually no heroin, others up to 10 percent a potentially deadly dose, authorities said.
Novice dealers are selling to novice drug users, a unique problem in itself, experts say.
Nichelle Chandler, a licensed drug counselor with Nexus Recovery Center Inc., said about 90 percent of her patients all teenage girls had no idea they were doing heroin when they first took cheese. For many, it was a first drug experience, before alcohol or marijuana.
"When I first started here four years ago, it was almost unheard of to have a kid come in for heroin use," Ms. Chandler said.
But then about 18 months ago, the first cheese addiction cases began arriving at the center. Since that time, Ms. Chandler estimates, they have treated about 200 girls in inpatient and outpatient settings, all Hispanic with an average age of 15.
"It was just mind-boggling," she said of the appearance of the new drug. "We couldn't understand why all of a sudden it was acceptable to use cheese."
"The drug dealers have gotten pretty creative."
firstname.lastname@example.org - Staff writers Paul Meyer, Alfredo Corchada and Tawnell D. Hobbs, and Sergio Chapa of Al Dνa contributed to this report.
SYMPTOMS OF ADDICTION
Dallas residential drug treatment centers are admitting an increasing number of youths for addiction to heroin mixed with Tylenol PM. Symptoms exhibited by those using "cheese" include:
Sleepiness, difficulty waking up
Personality shifts, possible aggressive behavior or dropping grades
Flu-like symptoms, nausea, vomiting and anxiety from withdrawal
For more information, contact the Phoenix Academy at 214-999-1044, ext. 3156, or www.phoenixhouse.org; or the Nexus Recovery Center at 214-321-0156 or www.nexusrecovery.org.
For information about the public mental health and substance abuse treatment system, contact ValueOptions at 1-888-800-6799 or www.valueoptions.com/northstar.
The Texas Department of State Health Services operates a toll-free hotline to locate services at 1-877-9NODRUG (877-966-3784), or go to www.tcada.state.tx.us/treatment/index.shtml.
The Greater Dallas Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse provides referrals at 214-522-8600 or www.gdcada.org.
BY THE NUMBERS
4: Deaths attributed to cheese in the Dallas area in the last year
$2: Cost per hit of cheese heroin on the street
1.5: Percentage of 10th- and 12th-graders surveyed who had used heroin at least once, according to a 2005 national report
45: Percentage of U.S. teenagers in that survey who said they had tried marijuana before finishing high school.