Few places embody preppy New England as flawlessly as Wellesley, Massachusetts. A tidy network of wooded avenues and culs-de-sac, Wellesley’s polished “downtown” is dominated by coffee shops and designer outlets whose styles all seem to evoke the same fusion of Jackie-O and yoga-mom Zen. The town hall, a massively elegant Romanesque structure, boasts its own flock of white farm geese. From the 1950s-style lampposts to the unusual number of florists, Wellesley gleams with the sort of conservative safety that anxious parents treasure. As one might expect, the weekly police reports rarely describe anything more exciting than the occasional busted high school party—in fact, one Boston-area radio station used to feature entries from the Wellesley police log as a daily humor segment.
It’s tough to imagine Wellesley’s polo-and-Sperry-clad teens doing anything more transgressive than drinking beer in a friend’s basement. So when, last July, 18-year-old Amy (whose name has been changed for confidentiality purposes) crashed her parents’ BMW into a roadside tree—totaling the vehicle and splitting open her own jaw—the police did not even breathalyze her. Nor did they ask permission to search the vehicle. Neither the officers who arrived at the crash site nor Amy’s parents could have known that the doe-eyed teenage driver was under the influence of one of the most lethally addictive drugs available on the street—or that she left the ER with a full gram of heroin still in her Coach purse.
It might be difficult to understand how such a seemingly obvious DUI could slip by without any legal consequences. Yet when most of us hear the word heroin, we don’t envision a slim white girl of eighteen with corkscrew brown hair and a designer wardrobe. Though, according to an article from History Today, opium was an accepted part of British culture through the late 1800s, its distillation into heroin in the early twentieth century coincided with an increase in popularity among young people of lower classes, as well as within minority communities, according to a paper by sociologist Gregory Yee Mark. Shortly afterwards, the government began implementing laws to restrict the highly addictive substance’s distribution and use. Rather than the gentleman’s cough syrup it had initially been sold as, heroin now belonged to “junkies,” young, impoverished addicts who earned their name by stealing scrap metal to support themselves.
Through the second half of the century, heroin use continued to cross racial lines. Though primarily regarded as a “ghetto” drug, heroin remained very much alive in the American counterculture and claimed the lives of several high-profile artists including Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain. As writer and punk musician Richard Hell observed in his 1986 essay, “The Problem With Heroin,” society has responded very differently to these two socioeconomic groups. “Heroin is still pretty much regarded as criminal among the poor and just sad—diseased—among the privileged,” Hell remarked, in a statement that remains accurate today. For the police to accuse Amy of possessing a Schedule I controlled substance would have been asking for scandal.
The fact that lower class and minority individuals account for the vast majority of drug-related arrests (according to a 2011 Forbes article) does not mean that heroin has not permeated the upper class. Amy is not the only teenager whose comfortable upbringing did not prevent her from developing a deadly—and highly illegal—habit. Last March, Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick declared a public health emergency after a sudden surge in heroin overdoses in the metro-Boston area, and the crisis has been covered by reporters from The New York Times, NPR, and The Boston Globe. And while NPR did note that heroin use is no longer strictly a plague of the inner city, most local coverage has still focused on blue-collar neighborhoods. For better or for worse, Wellesley’s prestige has kept it out of public scrutiny.
However, it is precisely the ability to remain off the radar that has allowed Amy’s own addiction—and those of many other Wellesley teens—to thrive. “If you went to my town, you would never think it’s so easy to get,” she told me of the drug. “It’s crazy.” In fact, the first time she ever bought heroin, or “H,” she wasn’t even looking for it.
Like most middle and upper class heroin users, Amy did not become dependent on opiates through H. Instead, she got hooked on Percocet, a narcotic prescription painkiller. In December, 2013, Amy was at home when a friend offered her a “blue,” the street name for 30 mg tablets of Percocet. The two girls smoked the tablet on aluminum foil, using a deconstructed ballpoint pen as a pipe. At first, Amy simply grew nauseous, and didn’t see the appeal. “It’s such a weird drug because the first time you do it, you’re like, why would anyone pay $30 for this,” she told me.
After trying the drug several more times, however, Amy found herself craving the lightheaded euphoria that had initially made her sick. She began buying blues routinely from Jack, a freckled, helmet-haired sophomore whose picture resembles a slightly deranged suburban lax-bro. Yet after a few weeks, she began to realize her new habit was not sustainable. “I immediately drained my bank account,” she remembers. Like most prescription drugs on the black market, blues are expensive. According to Amy, a single thirty-milligram pill can cost between $30 and $40. Even with a part-time job and a substantial allowance, Amy simply did not have the money to buy Percocet on a regular basis. “There’s no way you can keep up an addiction if it’s, like, $120 to get high for two hours,” she explained.
Then, one evening in early February, Amy found an alternative. It was the weekend, and she and several other Wellesley High School seniors, including Jack, had gathered at a friend’s open house. The usual substances were present: beer, cigarettes, weed. Yet a new chemical had also been added to the cocktail, for which Jack was eagerly accepting payment—heroin.
At first, Amy was anxious about the drug’s charged reputation. “There’s so much stigma on it,” she told me. “Even when I was doing blues, I was like, I’m never going to do [heroin].” Yet after her first lines, her anxieties disappeared. The sensation, she explained, is essentially equivalent to Percocet. Like blues, heroin is an opiate, and the street drug feeds the same pleasure-and-reward circuit as its prescription twin. Yet because it is manufactured illegally, H costs about a third of the price of FDA-approved narcotic painkillers. Here was a way to sustain her habit, without destroying her budget.
Of course, heroin’s low price comes at its own cost. Because it is a prescription drug, Percocet is consistent in quality and therefore it is difficult to accidentally overdose. In contrast, heroin is frequently cut by dealers, and notoriously unpredictable in concentration. As a result, overdoses are a very real risk of regular use.
One night in late March, Amy, Jack, and another friend (who, for confidentiality reasons, we’ll call Emily) were at a local movie theater. As Amy remembers, Jack had just obtained a new batch of H, which he claimed was especially high quality. Shortly after Amy began using, however, Jack made a comment that caused her to grow anxious. Both of them had noticed that the drug was unusually strong, and Jack thought it might have been cut with fentanyl, an extremely potent narcotic painkiller. According to The Boston Globe, the prescription med—which is 30 times more powerful than heroin— is used by certain dealers to provide a “new, extreme high,” and has been linked to numerous overdoses in recent years. Amy, who was aware of the drug’s risks, was furious Jack had not told her earlier.
Halfway through the movie, Jack and Emily left the theater. When they didn’t return after several minutes, Amy checked the bathroom, where she found her friends snorting lines of the new heroin in a closed stall. After using earlier, her anxieties about fentanyl had lessened, and she eagerly joined the group.
Then, unexpectedly, Emily went unconscious. Recognizing the signs of an overdose, Amy was puzzled and terrified. Though she knew overdose rates were especially high among heroin users, neither she nor her friends were shooting up, as most overdose victims do. Yet Emily was clearly in need of medical help. With her eyes shut, her skin pale, and her breath shallow, the 18-year-old looked, to Amy, to have a perilously fragile grip on life.
After dialing 9-1-1, Amy said, Jack promptly left the scene, explaining that he feared arrest. Amy remained with her friend, more frightened than she recalls ever being before or since. “It was crazy,” she remembers. “She basically died. Her heart stopped.”
When police and paramedics arrived, Amy explained the situation. Though brusque (she told me, “they treated us like junkies”) the medics acted promptly and efficiently to treat the overdose, and it was not long before Emily regained consciousness. Additionally, Good Samaritan laws—which prohibit the arrest of drug overdose victims and those who aid them in seeking help—protected the barely-18-year-olds from a court date. Despite the scare, it seemed, the girls would be OK.
Amy now realizes both she and Emily had been extraordinarily lucky. In addition to escaping legal consequences, both girls escaped parental discipline: though questioned, Amy said, Emily declined to provide any personal information, claiming to be homeless and without parents. No one pushed further, though it is difficult to believe the authorities bought her story. It wasn’t until several months later, when a hospital bill eventually found its way to her address, that Emily’s mother even learned of the incident.
Listening to Amy’s account, I could not help but wonder at how swiftly the overdose was addressed and dismissed by all involved. If the two girls themselves were off the hook thanks to Good Samaritan laws, one would think a lethal overdose would prompt some sort of police investigation into the source and circulation of the drug, or at least a stint in rehab. Instead, both Amy and Emily soon returned to the same habit that had nearly claimed one of their lives. Amy was using again within the week.
Of course, imposing legal penalties on overdose victims would be incredibly counter-productive—Amy herself is furious that so many of her peers are unaware of Good Samaritan laws, and are hesitant to call for medical help when they need it. Yet the fact that this did not seem to raise a red flag for the police is shocking when compared to similar cases around the same time frame. Simply typing “overdose arrest” into a search engine yields pages of arrests, prompted by the overdose of an individual close to the dealer. In fact, the Press of Atlantic City reports that just this month, a 24-year-old man in Egg Harbor, New Jersey, was charged with drug possession and intent to distribute after an overdose took place near his home.
In contrast, only two individuals involved in Wellesley’s heroin scene have been arrested: Jack, and another Wellesley High student named Keegan. Neither boy has faced serious charges; both are currently out of jail on probation. Whether or not the dealers deserve—or would benefit from—harsher punishment is a question for a different article. Yet the relative levity of their charges does seem unfair given the number of lives ravaged by America’s drug war, which has specifically targeted inner city communities.
Amy believes that the Wellesley police are intentionally focusing only on dealers, trying to curb distribution of the drug rather than punish users. Undoubtedly, this is a noble strategy. Yet examining drug arrest statistics from over the past few years reveals that this is hardly the norm—according to the FBI, over 82.2 percent of all arrests for drug crimes are for possession, not sale. Moreover, Black Americans are more than three times as likely to be arrested for drug possession than whites, according to a 2009 report from the Human Rights Watch—despite the fact that whites are more likely to have used most illegal drugs.
Of course, the fact that drug arrests are racially and socio-economically biased is not news. The vast disparity in rates of arrest for black and white individuals has been addressed in countless books and articles, and is a major focus of the American Civil Liberties Union. Yet the situation in Wellesley does more than simply highlight the vast discrepancy in the way that drug crimes are treated in suburbia versus the inner city. The fact that so many adults—from police officers, to public health officials, to parents—simply turn a blind eye does as little service to Wellesley’s teens as the drug war has done to many less privileged communities. Instead of landing behind bars, Wellesley’s teenagers are simply falling captive to addiction itself.
Amy claims that nearly all of her friends have tried H, though some “didn’t go crazy with it.” She added that a number of them will use even while readily admitting that the drug is dangerous, and criticizing others for their dependency. Perhaps more disturbingly, over a year after the drug became a part of her community, she says she cannot name a single individual who has recovered. Though one boy did enter rehab at his parents’ demands, she says he relapsed almost as soon as he returned home.
And the drug is spreading to lower grades. “A lot of younger kids are doing it,” Amy told me. “I’d always thought of it as just my friends, like, oh yeah, there’s a problem, but I know exactly who’s doing it.” Now, she says, even freshmen and sophomores are trying heroin. When I asked her how students’ parents were reacting, she paused. “I think there are a lot of parents just hoping they’re OK,” she said.
This September, Amy matriculated to college. Initially, she was excited to leave Wellesley behind, and hoped to shed her addiction with it. Along with Emily’s overdose, Amy’s car crash—which took place the following summer—had forced her to come to terms with the legitimate risks of her habit, and she was eager to break free of the drug’s grip. In the weeks leading up to school, she tried several times to cut herself off, and began taking Suboxone, a medication that mitigates withdrawal symptoms while blocking heroin’s effect.
Yet simply being away from her hometown was not enough to beat an eight-month-old addiction. Though she struggled at first to find new connections, she was soon wedded once again to her old habits. “I have to go to more unpleasant places,” she said. “And I don’t’ have a car, so it’s more dangerous. But I can get it.”
Because H is difficult to obtain on campus, Amy now takes a bus to Holyoke, Massachusetts. A far cry from the stately colonials and tidy sidewalks where she first became hooked, Holyoke is among Massachusetts’ poorest cities. Once a prominent mill town, the city is now a necropolis of boarded-up factory buildings and vacant lots. In 2009, nearly 40% of the city’s population reported annual incomes below the poverty line. Here, Amy says, finding heroin is no trouble. “It’s just crawling with it,” she tells me. “We just walk up to people who look like junkies and say, ‘Where can we buy dope?’”
When I ask if she ever thinks about recovery, she grows quiet. “I think about it a lot,” she says. “Whenever I have it, I just want to use it up really quickly and get rid of it. But as soon as it’s gone, I freak out.”