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The horse rides you

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'What's it like to have everything you need but nothing you want? When everything is handed to you on a silver platter, there seems to be nowhere to go but down," he wrote.

Sam, we'll call him, was a student at UCCS. We got off to a rocky start in the first class he took with me. He sat in the back row, uninterested in the subject; sleeping sometimes. When he showed up the next year in another class, I thought, "Oh great."

This time, he was different. He seemed engaged. And when he came to my office for help with his writing, which he did frequently, we talked. What he told me explained a lot: Sam was addicted to heroin.

As we talked, I encouraged him to write about his addiction.

"I had no aspirations, no hopes of bettering myself only the need to get high and feel good instantly," Sam wrote in an assignment. "It was no surprise that soon after I found opiates, the high was not enough and I turned to heroin."

Outside of some headlines in 2011, when local high school kids were busted as part of a black-tar heroin ring, I didn't give much thought to the drug. I thought of it as a throwback to the 1960s, not a problem of the new century.

Boy, was I wrong.

The National Drug Control Strategy report released just last week by the White House says that heroin use might be low compared to rates of use for other drugs, but there has been an increase in the number of people using heroin — from 373,000 past-year users in 2007 to 669,000 in 2012.

"Substances are like forms of transportation for your mind, taking it away to far places where problems seem obsolete. Heroin is the [Learjet] of escaping," Sam wrote.

Bob Holmes, CEO of STAR-Colorado, an addiction recovery center in Cascade, says heroin is more insidious than other drugs, and that typically, prescription painkiller abuse escalates to heroin use.

The White House report supports this: "A recent report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration ... found that four out of five recent heroin initiates (79.5 percent) had previously used prescription pain relievers non-medically."

In our conversation, Holmes provided a cursory history of substances through recent times. Meth has grabbed headlines for the last decade or so, he says, though we're reading about fewer drug busts of meth cookers since much of that has moved to Mexico.

High-profile overdoses, like that of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman in February, shine the media spotlight on problems like heroin addiction and bring it to our attention for a news cycle or two. But even reports that the actor was found with a needle in his arm and as many of 70 bags of heroin in his apartment don't do much to dissuade users.

"As Americans, we find a scapegoat and throw money at it," Holmes says. But a problem Holmes sees is "kids with too much money and too little supervision."

"My parents had the money to pay for treatment and the money for me to stay in school," Sam wrote. "I realized that the very thing that was helping me get clean was the reason I was an addict in the first place."

Holmes says we all need to be accountable — parents need to supervise their children, and physicians need a protocol review for how they prescribe painkillers.

"Becoming a better person and living up to my potential is the only way to get rid of the guilt I feel for wasting it in the first place," Sam wrote.

In April, the Associated Press reported 91 deaths from heroin in Colorado in 2012 — with the number of deaths among people ages 20-34 more than tripling. "In 2012, the problem also grew among 15- to 19-year-olds. While six teens died in the previous 12 years, five teen boys died of heroin overdoses alone in 2012," the AP report continued.

Sam died recently, just days before his birthday. The announcement of his death said it followed an "accident."

A friend of his told me that after three years clean, Sam had relapsed.

leurich@csindy.com

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