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This community has a deadly, dirty, secret. Forget marijuana, meth, even cocaine. Heroin has taken over as the drug of choice.

This year alone, the drug has claimed 36 lives in Jefferson county, 15 in Shelby county and five in Tuscaloosa county. None of the victims was an inner city drug user. The dead are all young white men and women from Birmingham's suburbs.

U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, Joyce Vance, said, "We all thought heroin was something that happened in the 60s."

Unfortunately, for a new generation, it is rapidly becoming the drug of choice according to Hueytown Police Chief Chuck Hagler. Shelby county sheriff Chris Curry confirms that heroin is "definitely in Shelby county," and Hoover Police Chief Nick Derzis acknowledges that his city, too has a problem with the drug.

DEA Assistant Special Agent in Charge Clay Morris warns parents are "walking around with blinders on if they think we don't have a heroin issue in the Birmingham area, because we do."

In this community, drug dealers sell Mexican brown heroin. Much of the heroin is cut, bagged, and stamped in heroin mills in Atlanta, and then makes the trip on I-20 to Birmingham.

Chief Hagler says that is where is border war begins. "A lot of it comes into west Birmingham, comes into Bessemer, comes into Brighton; we are the closest, most convenient, most readily available customer base."

Heroin addicts readily agree. One 30 year old woman who has been on heroin for five or six years says, "It's everywhere in Pleasant Grove, Hueytown, all these surrounding areas. It's everywhere."

Another addict who says he is fighting to stay clean for his young son claims, "I've seen people as young as 15 with their parents doing it."

Why heroin and why now? Simple answer is the community has seen a shift in drug availability. Vance says,"the supply of cocaine has dried up to some extent. It has become more expensive. Heroin is being trafficked in and it is inexpensive and it takes a small amount for a user to get a high quality high."

For many heroin users, the problem started in a home medicine cabinet. ASAC Morris believes the most pressing issue in this community and across the country is the abuse of prescription drugs. Morris calls it "a gateway drug" that often leads to the abuse of heroin. DEA drug takeback program collect hundreds of pounds of opiate synthetic pain killer drugs. These medications were obtained legally, but, often are stolen from parents or grandparents. The secondary user is a high school or college student.

Pharmaceutical companies fought back by changing the formula. Sheriff Curry explains, "some changes were made in the process of some of those drugs that made it impossible to do what they had done, which was to grind 'em down, heat 'em up, melt them, and inject them."

No pills, no problem, because a bag of heroin is cheaper than a pill. Here is the dirty secret every drug user knows. The addict never knows the strength of the heroin he is buying. In 2001, the average purity level of heroin in the United States was 13 percent. Today, it is between 30-35 percent.

ASAC Morris says, "obviously, that is extremely dangerous for the user because they don't know what level of purity they are getting. If they are not used to a 30% purity level, when they inject that into their arm, that's what is causing the overdose deaths. Their system can't take it and they literally die with a needle in their arm."

One in six high school seniors thinks it would be easy to obtain heroin. They aren't wrong. As this series continues, you will meet the young suburban heroin user who could be living in your home.

Posted: Nov 19, 2012 1:22 PM CST
Updated: Nov 19, 2012 1:25 PM CST

By Pam Huff, ABC 33/40 News

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