Stan Padilla has been using heroin for 45 years. On this cold December morning, he’s taking time to visit an Albuquerque syringe exchange to pick up clean gear for his habit.
"I just look out for myself,” said Padilla. “'Round here there isn’t no friends, when it comes out to drugs and money, it’s all about trying to use each other. It’s the way it is. It’s the drug business for you.”
He’s 61 years old, an Albuquerque native, and says he’s cut his habit down to using about once a month.
“I’ve been using since 1968, that’s when it was good,” said Padilla. “Now it’s nothing but black tar. It’s cut up to hell now. It’s no good no more.”
Another option for Padilla is pills: Klonopin, Percocet, Vicodin or Oxycontin. However, Padilla says the pills are expensive.
“Depends on how high of a dose they are,” said Padilla. “They’re pretty expensive. Up to $60 each for one pill.”
Compare that to $20 for a shot of heroin, which essentially does the same thing.
New Mexico has a drug problem. The state routinely holds close to the top position nationally for overdose deaths. No one has a clear reason why — some say poverty or unemployment, or easy access to drugs along distribution routes north.
However, when it comes to opioids, heroin or prescription pills are somewhat interchangeable. Michael Landen of the New Mexico Department of Health said prescription drugs are often an entry point to heroin.
“One of the current leading manifestations of substance abuse in the state is prescription drug overdose death,” said Landen. “This wasn’t a significant problem ten years ago, in the state. It was developing, but it wasn’t a significant problem.”
Since 1992, New Mexico has led the nation in drug overdose deaths, with the exception of two years – including 2010 – when West Virginia took the top spot. And before the prescription drugs? New Mexico led the nation in DUI fatalities.
Bottom line: the Land of Enchantment has a problem, and it doesn’t really matter what the drug is.
“Given that we have this significant problem with substance abuse, the drug that is causing these consequences will change,” said Landen. “Whether it’s alcohol, prescription opioids, heroin, cocaine, it’s going to change, and New Mexico just has to further develop the infrastructure to deal with substance abuse.”
“There’s more consumers, unfortunately, that are demanding that product,” said Eduardo Chavez with the Drug Enforcement Administration in Albuquerque. He says over the years, the demand for heroin has changed the industry from a niche business — like Stan Padilla was familiar with in the 60s — to a multinational industry.
“So just like any other multinational business, you had your mom and pop bakery that was able to make homemade bread every morning, 10 years ago, but now they’ve got contracts for hundreds and hundreds of customers,” said Chavez. “This is illicit corporate warfare.”
For many years, heroin supplied to U.S. consumers was produced, primarily, in Colombia. However, Thomas Pietschmann of the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime said, production in South America has declined dramatically, largely due to successful interdiction efforts.
“In 1998 it was estimated about 100 tons in Colombia being produced,” said Pietschmann. “From 100 tons this declined, by 2011, to eight tons.”
That’s about a 90 percent decline in Colombia’s production of heroin, and Mexico has filled the gap. It’s estimated that in 1998, Mexico produced around 60 tons of heroin and by 2011, that number had gone up to 250 tons. Again, one of the primary drivers for demand? Prescription drug abuse.
“The U.S. has been taking measures to reduce this large-scale abuse of synthetic opioids, which is positive,” said Pietschmann. “The negative side effect is that suddenly those who had been addicted to these opioids are now turning to Mexican heroin.”
In Albuquerque, Stan Padilla says he’s struggling to quit. Primarily because he was recently diagnosed with bone cancer.
“Chemotherapy and fixing heroin? It’s bad,” said Padilla. “I’ve stopped for five, six months at a time. Clean up, but I always go back to the same shit. I don’t know. That’s the way I am.”
Ironically, Padilla’s heroin habit helped manage his pain. He says he hopes his doctor will prescribe morphine as he undergoes treatment.