Putting the Smack Down 

A major drug bust sheds light on Memphis' worsening heroin problem.

Jen, a 24-year-old Memphis woman, first started using heroin six years ago. Now three weeks clean, she once sold everything of value in her parents' home, even their wedding rings.

"I got in a lot of trouble: burglary, robbing folks. I'd go to Wal-Mart and snatch purses out of people's baskets," says Jen, who is enrolled in a year-long treatment program and didn't want her last name used for this story.

"When I used to go get it, I'd be the only person waiting," says Jen. "But recently, there'd be times when 10 or 12 cars are waiting."

Last week, Memphis Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) officials arrested 10 leaders in a major Mexican heroin ring operating in Memphis. Five others were indicted but have not yet been arrested. Some are believed to be hiding in Mexico.

The ring was active in 15 cities in the southeastern part of the United States, including Nashville and Knoxville. Over the course of the DEA's year-long investigation -- dubbed Operation Black Gold Rush -- 50 pounds of black-tar heroin were seized. About six pounds were seized in Memphis.

"This is the first major operation targeting the trafficking of heroin here in years," says U.S. attorney David Kustoff. "Lately, we've seen an increase of heroin cases in Memphis."

Lt. Ralph Peperone with the Memphis Police Department's (MPD) Organized Crime Unit agrees that Memphis' heroin use is on the rise. Last year, MPD seized 5,852 grams of heroin. By the end of July this year, 5,899 grams had been seized.

The West Tennessee Violent Crime and Drug Task Force made one of the largest busts in recent years in March when 8.5 pounds of heroin were seized from a home in Hickory Hill.

"These days, I'd say about one in every three patients has used heroin," says Kenneth Richardson, one of Jen's counselors at Synergy Treatment Center. "It's been on the rise for the past five years, but due to the meth epidemic, it's kind of taken a backseat."

If use continues to rise, Richardson says Memphis can expect more robberies as well as an increase in viruses that can be spread by shared needles, such as HIV and Hepatitis C.

"If someone has a heroin addiction, it may cost them $50 to $75 a day, every day," says Andy Dimond with the Memphis DEA office. "If they don't have a job, they're forced to turn to crime, but it's less likely to be violent crime."

Dimond says heroin users tend to commit crimes against property rather than people. During DEA investigations, Dimond says they've seen everything from computers to a Blockbuster video rental card traded for heroin.

"It has a ripple effect on the entire community," he says. "Any one of us can have a laptop stolen out of our car because some heroin user needs it to sell or trade."

Though heroin use is on the rise, marijuana, crack cocaine, and methamphetamine are still the most abused drugs in Memphis.

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