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More Young People Are Getting Hooked On Heroin

— Heroin is becoming the drug of choice for an increasing number of San Diegans ages 18 to 25.

Over the last five years, the number of young heroin addicts in publicly funded treatment programs has tripled.

The habit usually starts with prescription painkillers.

Wade Ballin’s habit started when he was in high school in Carmel Valley.

A growing number of young adults are abusing prescription painkillers, and quickly transitioning to heroin.

He broke his ankle, and had to have reconstructive surgery. Ballin’s doctor prescribed morphine and Percocet for the pain.

"Once that ran out, I became addicted, ‘cause I didn’t take them as prescribed," Ballin recalled. "And then I started doing like Oxycontin, and that’s synthetic heroin, so I started smoking that stuff. It became that it wasn’t doin’ it for me anymore, and I ended up smoking heroin, for the first time, when I was like 17."

Ballin was having to pay up to $60 for each Oxycontin pill he scored on the street. That’s one of the reasons he switched to heroin.

"It was cheaper," he said. "You know, you get more for your money."

But Ballin’s heroin habit started costing him plenty.

"You know, I started stealin’ from people, you know what I mean, robbing people, doing all kind of home burglaries, you know, home invasions. Breaking into cars," Ballin said.

He was arrested 27 times. The last time was in May, 2011, in Carlsbad.

"Honestly, it felt like, they say you have a spiritual awakening kind of thing. It was kind of like that," Ballin remembered. "I was comin’ down and I was in my cell, and I just didn’t want to do it anymore. And then I was given an opportunity to come into drug court."

Judge Harry Powazek heads up the North County Drug Court, one of four such courts in San Diego County.

"So we’re getting these young kids, it’s not Barrio Logan, it’s Carmel Valley, Poway, young kids going straight to heroin in a fairly quick progression, that we’ve never seen before," Judge Powacek pointed out.

Judge Powazek said the young addicts variably start on drugs like Oxycontin. And once they become heroin addicts, it’s very difficult to get them to see where they’re headed if they don’t quit.

"Their addiction has stunted their maturity. They’re kids! You know, all they see is the immediacy of what they want," Powacek said.

In an outpatient treatment center in Vista called the North County Center for Change, counselor Jeff Jeffrey addressed a roomful of men.

"Did somebody force me into this life or did I choose it?" he asked the crowd. "It was all a choice. It was always a choice."

Jeffrey pointed at one of the men. "Why was it a choice, Jer?" he asked him.

"You have a choice to do or not to do. It’s not something that you’re born into," Jer replied. The other men nodded their heads.

All of men in this room are long-time drug addicts who’ve done numerous stints in jail. They’re taking part in an 18-month-long treatment program mandated by the Drug Court. If they continue to test clean and complete the program, they can get some of the charges against them dismissed.

Jeffrey said the philosophy behind his program is simple.

"Most people don’t wake up in the morning, and decide how they’re going to harm themselves," Jeffrey explained. "There’s usually something underneath, usually low self-esteem. You’re gonna find a lot of insecurities and inadequacies."

Address those issues, Jeffrey said, and you get to the core of why people feel the need to use drugs in the first place. And you help them figure out how to live without drugs.

Wade Ballin is in the program. He’s been clean for almost a year.

Ballin thinks parents could prevent a lot of other kids from getting hooked, if they’d keep a closer eye on their medicine cabinet.

"Keep ‘em out of reach of your kids, you know what I mean? ‘Cause we dig through our family’s stuff, you know, closets and stuff," Ballin said. "You have to keep ‘em in a safe place where you know they won’t find them, because, before you know it, one or two is missing, and then the whole bottle’s gone."

But perhaps doctors could also help, by prescribing fewer painkillers.

The Centers for Disease Control says sales of prescription opioids have quadrupled over the last ten years.

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