California Forum

Heroin Belt binds affluent, largely white suburbs in Southern California

Sam Quinones
Sam Quinones

Town Center in the Los Angeles suburb of Simi Valley is not a remarkable place as malls go.

A freeway runs alongside it. There’s a Buffalo Wild Wings, a movie theater, and a motorized train that takes toddlers on rides around the mall. Since last Saturday, a large Christmas tree covered in ornaments stands in the middle of the shopping center, next to a Starbucks.

A group of parents that goes by the name Not One More put up the tree. Each ornament contains a photograph, of each of 70-plus teenagers and young adults. Each kid is white, and each died from overdoses of heroin or prescription painkillers.

I’ve visited Simi Valley during the last couple of years because it has become part of Southern California’s – and of the country’s – Heroin Belt. Simi Valley looks nothing like what you’d expect from a town thus described. It is a conservative suburb of ranch-style homes and shiny SUVs. Three-quarters of Simi Valley’s 126,000 residents are white. The town is home to a lot churches. Many Los Angeles police officers live here; one of them is on the City Council.

Yet alarming numbers of kids here have overdosed and died. Pills and heroin are reportedly easy to obtain at high schools. The city has put heroin prevention ads at its bus stops. Not One More started in Simi before it grew to include similarly well-to-do additions to the Heroin Belt: Thousand Oaks, Moorpark, Agoura Hills. Rehab clinics in Simi and its neighbors report huge new numbers of addict clients, virtually all of them white.

America faces an epidemic of addiction to heroin and narcotic painkillers. Fatal overdoses surpass deaths due to traffic fatalities, and opiates are a big reason why.

Also striking is that, in this drug epidemic, not just a large number, or even most, of the new addicts are white. It’s that almost no one else is getting addicted to them. That could change, of course.

America faces an epidemic of addiction to heroin and narcotic painkillers. Fatal overdoses surpass deaths due to traffic fatalities, and opiates are a big reason why.

But in three years researching and writing “Dreamland,” my book about this epidemic, I met one only non-white person who’d grown addicted to opiates. My observations are echoed by cops and drug counselors, Narcotics Anonymous organizers, and public health nurses across the country.

As a reporter for almost 30 years, I long ago saw that drug abuse often follows racial or ethnic lines. Crack devastated the black community – though many users were of different races. Meth, years ago, was the purview of low-income whites, especially bikers and motorcycle gangs – though that drug has since seeped into the Latino community.

But during those years, I’ve seen no drug scourge affect one racial group this exclusively and for so long. While it first ravaged low-income Appalachia, opiate addiction proceeded to also invaded largely white suburbs like Simi Valley, which are presumed to be doing quite well.

A few factors may contribute to this.

During the outbreak of heroin of the 1970s, heroin swept through Latino barrios and black neighborhoods. That was long ago. But I believe communities hold a collective memory. Those communities saw its devastation. In East LA, for example, heroin was a big part of the Latino gang world there – the reason a lot of guys went to prison, and a lot of people died.

Heroin has been a special kind of anathema there ever since. In Mexican Spanish, tecato, the term for “junkie,” is laced with extra abhorrence and disdain, though it’s unclear that Latinos hold heroin in any less disrepute than does the white community, particularly parents of the current generation of addicts.

Another explanation is that as doctors began to prescribe opiate painkillers more aggressively in the late 1990s and into the 2000s, they did so mostly among white people. A study or two shows doctors feared prescribing these pills to African Americans and Latinos would lead to massive diversion of the drugs into the black market. Of course, that’s exactly what happened when doctors overprescribed these pills to whites.

In fact, in the eternal debate over whether demand or supply is at the core of a societal drug problem, this epidemic shows the answer clearly to be the latter. Massive overprescribing led to a rising sea level of pills nationwide. Before long, pills were in the medicine cabinets of families all over this country, and thus easily accessible to a new generation of relatively privileged drug user.

These factors in combination might explain why so few new opiate addicts come from other ethnic or racial groups. They don’t do much to explain why whites – a group that life has generally treated pretty well, particularly in the last 20 years – have turned in such large numbers to a group of drugs used, of all things, to numb pain.

After years of researching this epidemic, this is the one question I still find no convincing hard answer for.

That’s why I spoke recently with Krissy McAfee, who lives in the town of Santa Clarita, another deceptively well-manicured part of our new Heroin Belt, not far from Simi Valley. Krissy is a mother and grandmother whose son died of an opiate overdose and is now raising her daughter’s children.

Pills and, to a lesser extent, heroin feel as common in Simi and Santa Clarita as cellphones and social media, and as difficult to get away from. Krissy said she saw a connection – a soullessness entwined in dope and gadgets.

“We have created a generation who feel they are owed things, instead of having to work for things,” she said. “They don’t have to pay for their insurance or their phone.

“Living in Santa Clarita, my kids were surrounded by these people. My kids used to get so mad at me because I didn’t have the money. I made them pay the gas, insurance, the monthly payments, maintenance for their cars. They couldn’t understand it.”

Too many kids, especially in the white community, are given too much, protected from too much, and thus haven’t learned to navigate life’s difficulties, she believes.

After years of researching this epidemic, this is the one question I still find no convincing hard answer for. As I wrote the book, I seemed to encounter issues far deeper than those related to simple drug supply and the underworld. The story became less a crime tale and one about who we were as a country.

Los Angeles-based journalist Sam Quinones is the author of “Dreamland: The true tale of America’s opiate epidemic,” (Bloomsbury).