It’s been more than a month since Tim and Joan Smith have gone to bed without the fear of a late-night knock from the police.
“Right now, it’s pretty good, but I don’t know where we’ll be later,” Joan Smith said.
The couple, no longer naïve to the power of addiction, is elated but weary of their daughter Tracy Smith’s recovery. Plagued by the fear that comes with having an addict child, Tim and Joan Smith, who’ve asked their identity be concealed for their protection, have transformed from a typical coastal community family to a vigilant team working to help their daughter beat a $140-a-week opiate habit.
“Having a child is one of the best things that can happen to you,” Joan Smith said. “But one of the worst things is knowing that you’re probably going to have to bury your child.”
And nobody knows that heartache more than Robert Clutter, whose only son, Christian Clutter, 30, died of a heroin overdose in July after two years of being clean.
Robert Clutter, a lifelong resident of Encinitas, explained his son battled with heroin addiction for more than 10 years. After completing a yearlong residential program in San Diego, he was hopeful Christian had moved on from the drug-haze that led him to manipulate and occasionally steal from his family.
Unfortunately, in the midst of trying to find himself, Christian Clutter slipped back into his habit after moving home earlier this year.
“It’s an ugly f–ing drug,” Robert Clutter insisted. “I think most parents think it’s a weekend issue. But heroin becomes part of your life … you’ll do anything to get it.”
Tip of the iceberg
Christian Clutter’s death is one of many North County casualties of opiate addiction. There is no shortage of families who know the pain and devastation of losing a loved one to opiate use. Even more disheartening is that opiate abuse among young adults in North County appears to be on the rise, according to law enforcement.
Throughout the past year, Detective Gary Floyd, of the San Marcos Sheriff’s Substation, said there has been an increase in seizures of heroin.
Many of the users, who are generally in their 20s, prefer to smoke or snort the drug, rather than inject it, Floyd said.
“I think there’s kind of a perception that as long as I’m not slamming a needle into my arm, then I’m not a junkie,” the detective said. “But the addictive nature of the drug is the same no matter how it is ingested.”
Across town in Encinitas, Detective Craig Johnson of the Encinitas Sheriff’s Substation said pharmaceuticals are the drugs of choice among teens in coastal North County.
“OxyContin is one of the most potent and sought-after prescription pills out there,” Johnson said.
Drug use usually starts when teens experiment with their parents’ prescription medications, Johnson said. Because of the addictive nature of OxyContin, an opiate that produces a similar high and similar withdrawal effects to heroin, this experimentation can quickly get out of hand and lead to heroin use.
OxyContin, like heroin, is often smoked, snorted and injected, though it’s usually more expensive to buy. Because OxyContin tablets use a controlled release, the drug is intended to be absorbed throughout the body over an extended period. Ingesting broken or crushed tablets will lead to the rapid release and absorption of the pill, which gets users higher faster and can greatly increase the risk of an overdose.
One 80-milligram pill of OxyContin averages $40 to $45, and some users ingest up to four and five pills a day. On the other hand, a quarter gram of heroin, which may produce several highs depending on the user, averages $20.
Joan Smith explained that her 21-year-old daughter’s foray into opiates began five years ago when she started using her father’s OxyContin pills. At 19, Tracy Smith started snorting heroin and soon after began injecting it. During that time, mood swings, weight loss and the search for the next high characterized a once happy-go-lucky kid who loved to surf. “We saw a look in her eyes that we’ve never, ever seen,” Joan Smith said.
Desperate for a solution, the Smiths put their daughter into counseling and tried to be sympathetic to her needs, but all it did was perpetuate her downward spiral.
“When you don’t know how deep (the addiction) is, you think you can fix it,” Joan Smith said. “You won’t enable them, but somehow you think you can give them more love, more counseling and you’ll get through it, but that’s also enabling.”
After an array of failed recovery options — methadone, counseling, self-detoxification — and relapses that included the Smiths catching their daughter preparing to shoot up in their home, they eventually gave her an ultimatum. Tracy Smith needed to kick the habit or she would be exiled from their family.
“You’re not doing this in our house and you’re not doing this to us anymore,” Joan Smith told her.
Their daughter chose the drug and consequently the streets.
In an attempt to save Tracy Smith’s life, Tim and Joan Smith also hit the streets — begging and pleading with dealers and addicts, threatening them if they didn’t stop selling and using heroin with their daughter. “I’ll do whatever I have to do,” Joan Smith said. “We’re going to fight for her life, because I don’t want to look back someday and say I didn’t do all I could do.”
A young problem
Nationally, heroin use is stable at relatively low levels, according to the Justice Department’s 2008 National Drug Threat Assessment; however, there are signs of increasing use among young adults in a number of suburban and rural areas.
The agency also states that the abuse of prescription narcotics, like OxyContin, as a precursor to heroin use is an “emerging concern” to law enforcement and public health officials.
At least one in every 20 high school seniors has tried OxyContin at least once in the last year, according to an annual survey by University of Michigan researchers.
In North County, addiction specialist Kamran Zafar said he knows of six teens and young adults who overdosed and died from using opiates in the last year and a half compared to three or four years ago when he wasn’t aware of any overdoses.
“Opiates and pills have become a major problem for young people,” Zafar explained. “It’s getting really bad.”
What’s being done
In light of this heightened awareness among law enforcement and experts about the rise of opiate abuse, Joan and Tim Smith are baffled as to how their child’s former dealer, among others, can still sell drugs openly in the D Street corridor of Encinitas.
The couple said they’ve turned over their daughter’s drug contacts to the sheriff’s department and have reported public drug dealings in downtown Encinitas involving their daughter’s former dealer, but have failed to see any action taken by the department.
Detective Johnson said because the Encinitas station only has two detectives for their department’s jurisdiction — which encompasses Encinitas, Del Mar, Solana Beach, Cardiff-by-the-Sea and Rancho Santa Fe — he and his partner are sometimes restricted to how quickly they can respond to citizens’ reports.
“We have limited time and ability to take care of things as fast as people want,” Johnson said. “If it was in my backyard, I’d want it done tomorrow, but it doesn’t work that way in our job. There are too many legal hoops we have to go through.”
Tim Smith said he has noticed more of a police presence in downtown Encinitas, but he remains disheartened that their daughter’s dealer is still selling around town.
“You might as well give (the dealer) a gun with a thousand rounds of ammunition and have him just shoot randomly around town and whoever he hits, he kills,” he said.