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published on July 18, 2019 - 2:01 PM
Written by Donald A. Promnitz

As he took a shower one evening, former Clovis High School student Zack W. began to feel ill.

Nauseous, Zack got out and went to lie down on the bathroom floor. When he opened his eyes, he was in a hospital bed, surrounded by doctors and nurses. Then Zack remembered the heroin he’d taken earlier and realized what had happened — he’d just survived an overdose.

The heroin problem

Before this incident, Zack kept his habits from his parents. He had started drinking, before getting hooked on Percocet from a friend’s mother’s prescription, and later moved up to smokeable (black tar) heroin. Earlier that day, Zack tried “China White,” a sniffable, powdered version of the drug, but it was far more potent than black tar. However, Zack’s brush with death wasn’t enough to deter him, even using heroin again for a few months.

“That only slowed me down for a little bit,” he said. “I didn’t jump right back into heroin — I started doing a lot of amphetamines, cocaine, but eventually… I started shooting heroin up.”

Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, a wave of mass prescriptions led to a nationwide epidemic of addiction to opioid-based painkillers like Vicodin, Norco, OxyContin and Opana. In the Central Valley, it’s been felt especially hard in the schools, and according to Parents & Addicts in Need (PAIN) founder Flindt Andersen, no group has been harder hit than the students and alumni of the Clovis Unified School District.

Making matters worse, many of the former and current students from Clovis Unified have gone from pills to even harder substances, with heroin being perhaps the most prevalent. In fact, Andersen added that most of the former students coming through PAIN’s doors who are in their 20s and 30s are rarely on pills alone, but on combinations of pills and heroin, pills and meth, and other mixes. Like OxyContin before, heroin has also become much more readily available than it previously was, due in large part to shipments across the U.S.-Mexico border.

“We’re almost now past the pill crisis — we’re still in the pill crisis, but we have really dived into the heroin crisis,” he said. “So I think the majority of these kids are taking much more heroin than we even realized. I really do.”

The ladder

The heroin problem initially escalated in 2010 with the decision by Purdue Pharma to replace its OxyContin pills with gel tablets, when it was discovered that the pills were being crushed for smoking, sniffing and injecting. But rather than solve the problem, it reportedly only managed to make things worse, with those using OxyContin turning to other substances.

However, the pulling of OxyContin pills was not the only way that heroin was introduced to the students and alumni at Clovis Unified. Cameron Hicks, for example, was introduced around 2005-2006, before the pill pull. In his case, he was out of school and off of his family’s insurance.

“I preferred the OxyContin because the transactions were easier, I had my own prescriptions, I didn’t have to drive to the west side of Fresno, most of the people that I was buying or selling OxyContin to didn’t have to worry about being jacked or anything like that,” Hicks said.

Often times, a heroin buy would mean a trip to West Fresno along Jensen Avenue. The problem became so prevalent, Hicks said, that he and other Clovis residents were routinely pulled over by police. Here, they were given a lecture on the dangers of buying drugs in the area. This did little to deter them.

For Jack Karraker, the switch was just the last rung on what he called the “opiate ladder.” Starting with Vicodin and Norco in high school, he started using oxycodone in college and later Opana. Also known as “stop signs” for their octagonal shape, Opanas had some of the highest potency of any painkiller. They eventually surpassed OxyContin as the most heavily abused prescription drug in the U.S., but they were expensive and hard to come by.

Karraker’s habit followed him out of high school when he graduated Buchanan in 2010, and while he was playing baseball for the Oregon Ducks. Tapped out on finances, Karraker continued up the ladder last June.

“At this point, I had been to a few rehabs by then, I understood the fact that pills and heroin were pretty much the same thing, and heroin was cheaper,” Karraker said. “Eventually, that habit got to the same as it was with pills, but that initial $20 would get me what I wanted to get, and that was attractive.”

Many of Karraker’s former classmates remain addicted, and now some current students are allegedly using it recreationally. Buchanan and Clovis North were two examples given by PAIN, but it’s also spread outside of Clovis Unified, especially in the private schools.

The reason, Andersen said, is because there’s no longer a stigma surrounding the use of heroin, or at least on the same level as it was in previous decades.

“Even when I was growing up, that was skull and crossbones stuff. Everybody was afraid of doing that — all of us were. I can’t even remember in high school or college where I even saw heroin. Nobody would bring that.” 

‘Not my kid’

For Hicks, Andersen and others, the local opioid and heroin problem has been abetted in large part due to poor tactics used to inform students and parents alike. While nearly all districts (including Clovis Unified) hold anti-drug presentations and host guest speakers, the methods, they said, are all wrong.

Hicks recalls the lectures he and his classmates would sit through in the gymnasium — he also remembers being high on OxyContin while these presentations on the dangers of drugs took place. While not condoning underage drinking or drug use, he said presenters make the mistake of roping alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana in the same category as harder substances.

“Because kids are going to drink alcohol, they’re probably going to smoke cigarettes, try some pot, and when they find out it’s not what they were told, then everything else kind of falls under the same umbrella, because that’s where it was put.”

Perhaps of greater concern, however, is the reported lack of awareness with parents. In Zack’s case, his parents didn’t realize there was a problem until he overdosed and likewise, Karraker’s family didn’t expect it.

But for parents who worked at the district, it was in some cases a completely different story. For Clovis East secretary Dana Garrison, it was something she lived through as her daughter Kerry (who attended Clovis High) fought addiction. The problem, she said, was not nearly as prevalent at Clovis East, but every now and then, reminders would appear on their doorstep.

“I had a learning director a few years ago who came from Buchanan,” Garrison said. “And her son had an injury and she would have him come into her office every day and administer his pain meds, because she said she saw so much of it at Buchanan that she wasn’t going to take that chance.”

On parental awareness, Andersen added that one of the main problems has been the media’s portrayal of the problem. While he says that the majority of his clients have come from north of Herndon Avenue and overdoses may take place in Woodward Park, it’s not uncommon for the news cameras to instead show addicted persons downtown and under bridges.

“As soon as that picture hits the airwaves, people shut down,” Andersen said. “Because it’s not their kid. But by the way, that kid probably did go to a Clovis school.”

Hicks agreed, explaining that misconceptions about the social status of users can be one of the greatest roadblocks to awareness.

“Everybody thinks, you know ‘it’s not my kid,’ or ‘oh my God, Vietnam vets and people that lived in South-Central L.A. shoot heroin,” Hicks said. “My kid just got a 3.7 GPA and is a state championship volleyball player — of course they’re not shooting heroin.”

Hicks, Kerri Garrison, Zack and Karraker are all clean now, with Karraker’s venture into sobriety beginning in January. However, PAIN and others continue to say that there’s a problem in Clovis and in districts across the Valley. And more recently, this has meant a marked problem with Xanax, which Andersen warns could be the next crisis drug.

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