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How illegal drugs hit the streets

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Note: This article was originally published on Jan. 6, 2005.

Here's a look at how young people are getting their hands on heroin and OxyContin:

HEROIN

In the past several years, law enforcement has noticed that the area's heroin is no longer coming from the Far East. Instead, most of the drug found North of Boston travels from Colombian jungles to New York City and then up Interstate 95 to Essex County. 

It arrives in New York compressed in finger-sized "bullets," often made of latex, that are swallowed by smugglers so the drug can travel undetected on airplanes. From New York, the drug makes its way north via cars, delivery services and bus lines. 

Here in Essex County, heroin is sold in single bags, typically enough for one hit, costing between $4 and $20. A gram sells for $60 to $100. An ounce is $2,500 to $5,000. 

The more hardened addicts may use 3 or 4 grams a day. 

Heroin usually is distributed in powder form, though it can have a tarlike quality. It comes in a variety of colors, and for several years, dealers would pack it in glassine bags with marketing logos such as "Red Devil," "Batman" and "Heavy D."

But Lt. Kenneth Gill, head of the Essex County Drug Task Force, said most dealers have stopped placing logos on their goods because it became too easy for law enforcement to trace the drugs.

Instead, most of the heroin North of Boston is sold in cellophane bags closed with twist-ties. Excess plastic is typically cut off once the bag is sealed, so the "bundle" can fit in the center of a person's palm.

OXYCONTIN

The other drug playing a role in the country's opiate epidemic is the prescription pill OxyContin. 

OxyContin is the brand name for oxycodone hydrochloride, a very strong narcotic used to treat chronic pain. It was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1995. Its addiction is similar to heroin addiction because both drugs are derived from opium. 

However, plenty of people prescribed OxyContin don't become addicted because they follow a doctor's directions to take the pill whole, and with food and water once every 12 hours. 

What's different with the young people who become addicts is how they take the pill. 

OxyContin has a time-release coating that provides pain relief 12 hours. But abusers typically crush the pill to remove this coating. This way they get an immediate "rush" or "high" similar to heroin. 

Once they crush the pill, they snort the powder or dissolve it in water and drink it. The dissolved pill also can be shot directly into the bloodstream with a hypodermic needle.

On the street, the pills are called Oxys, OCs or just Os. The drug typically sells for $1 a milligram on the black market, with the 20- and 80-milligram tablets ($20 and $80) the most common. They come in a variety of colors, including green, yellow, pink and white. The pills typically have the dosage listed on one side and the initials "OC" on the other. 

OxyContin often is obtained by "doctor shopping" — receiving prescriptions from several different doctors. Users also forge prescriptions, steal prescription pads, and rob home medicine cabinets, mail carriers, drug stores and individual patients. 

Unlike heroin, which has a well-established trafficking network, prescription drugs such as OxyContin typically are sold by independent dealers who sell them to support their own drug habits.