#1Apr 30th, 2007
DALLAS -- Olga Sanchez thought her 15-year-old son had stopped using "cheese," a heroin mixture making its way across the Dallas area.But this spring, Oscar Gutierrez's brother found him dead in bed."He was very purple. He was very cold, cold," said Sanchez, who had been attending drug counseling with her son since discovering his cheese habit last fall.The deaths of at least 18 teenagers, ranging from ages 15 to 18, have been linked to the mixture of black tar heroin -- a less refined form of the drug -- and Tylenol PM tablets ground into a powder.The spread of cheese in schools has parents and law enforcement officials worried. Children as young as 11 have been caught with the concoction.Right now, cheese heroin seems to be a Dallas phenomenon. But experts note that drug dealers are always eager to expand into new areas. Dallas school district police first spotted the trend in 2005."Cheese is just a different makeup for mixing with heroin, but it's still heroin," said Dr. Jeffrey Barnard, chief medical examiner for Dallas County. "It's the heroin that's the problem."Several factors appear to be driving the popularity of cheese. Kids often buy the drug from other kids. It's affordable, selling for about $2 a dosage. And it is usually snorted rather than injected."Hopefully we can try to contain it," said Dr. Sing-Yi Feng, a toxicologist at Children's Medical Center Dallas. "The concern is that the stuff is pretty cheap, it's easy to use."During the 2005-2006 school year, the Dallas school district police arrested 90 students for possession of the heroin/Tylenol PM mixture. The number has soared during the current school year. Through February, 122 have been arrested. The average age of those arrested is 14."From an overall perspective, the numbers are very high," said Julian Bernal, deputy chief of narcotics for the Dallas police, who make 6-12 arrests a month for possession of cheese heroin. "The number of heroin users is going up dramatically in the school system.""The resurgence of heroin in society in 11 to 16 years olds -- that's unprecedented," Bernal said.Experts say that calling the drug "cheese" is a marketing ploy by drug dealers, along the lines of dying methamphetamine different colors and putting marijuana in candy."It becomes much more appealing to younger kids because it doesn't have the stigma, they're not as afraid to get started," said Dr. Collin Goto, a toxicologist at Children's Medical Center Dallas. "They're calling it cheese, they're not calling it heroin."Experts say cheese usually has about 2 to 8 percent heroin mixed with the Tylenol PM -- which contains acetaminophen and diphenhydramine -- or similar over-the-counter drugs.As their tolerance increases, some kids may use the drug 10-15 times a day. Others turn from snorting cheese to injecting it with needles.Gary Hodges, deputy chief of the Dallas school district police, said cheese arrests in the district have nearly equaled those for marijuana, still the leading substance involved in drug arrests.The deaths have been reported throughout the county. Most of the victims are male, and involve equal numbers of white and Hispanic youth. One girl who died was found with the phrase "Cheese Please" scrawled on her body with a marker.Authorities say they are just now beginning to understand how widespread the mixture has become and the toll it is taking on Dallas area youth. Even the exact number of cheese heroin related deaths was not known until The Dallas Morning News analyzed medical examiner records and published the results earlier this month."Basically, it flew under the radar screen," said Zachary Thompson, director of Dallas County Health and Human Services and a member of the Dallas County task force on cheese.This isn't the first time the Dallas area has seen an outbreak of drug deaths in teens. In the mid-1990s, black tar heroin had a deadly run in the affluent Dallas suburb of Plano, with as many as 17 fatal overdoses and three more near-fatal.Young people often don't understand the potential for an accidental overdose, said Carol Falkowski, director of research communications at Hazelden Foundation, an addiction treatment, education and research center based in Minnesota."There's no way of knowing ahead of time what the purity of the drug is and even experienced users can get fatal overdoses," Falkowski said.Dave Cannata's son, Nick, died June 5, 2005, with heroin and diphenhydramine in his system. Nick Cannata, who had been in rehab for a drug problem the summer before, was found dead in his bed in Coppell, a bedroom community just outside of Dallas.The 16-year-old with a talent for music and drawing had spent the day building a deck with his father before going to a friend's house. Dave Cannata said he knew something was wrong when his son returned home that night, but he decided to delay a confrontation."If I had to do it over again, I wouldn't hesitate to pick up the phone and call 911," said Cannata. "It's alarming the epidemic proportion of kids that are messing with this stuff."Olga Sanchez agrees. She knew her son Oscar, an eighth-grader at a Dallas middle school, sometimes hung out with kids who used drugs, but remembers him as a respectful boy who didn't get into trouble.She and Cannata want others to understand how deadly heroin can be."I would like for kids to realize that lots of other kids have died, that they should look for help, that they could lose their life," Sanchez said.Cannata said, "At this point in my life, my objective is to save a life."Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press (external - login to view).