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Drug Dealer's Career Follows Evolution Of Opiate Epidemic In U.S.


The opioid crisis in this country has caught the attention of presidential candidates and Congress. This week, the Senate approved a bill that promises to fund rehabilitation and overdose programs. President Obama is expected to sign it soon. It'll also allow police departments to send people to treatments rather than to jail. Jasmine Garsd with our Planet Money podcast brings us the story of a drug dealer whose career tracks the evolution of this epidemic.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: I met him in North Carolina. The first thing he said was to call him by his nickname, Bone, because of his criminal activity. The second thing he told me is that he died last week.

BONE: I died Thursday. And I had to go to the hospital. Somebody dragged me in.

GARSD: Bone overdosed on heroin. He sounds annoyed, but not afraid. This happens a lot in his world. To understand how he got to this place where dying is normal, I asked him how he started out.

BONE: I sold pills for a long time. I was very successful at selling pills.

GARSD: This was the early 2000s, and prescription painkillers were the hot, new drug. And even though he was a teenager, it was easy to get anything he wanted from a pill mill - a clinic that dispenses painkillers like candy, no questions asked. Bone even popped some pills himself. He sold each pill for $10, and he says he could make around $700 a day.

BONE: I wasn't even 19 when I owned two cars, a motorcycle, and I owned my own house. And I mean my own house.

GARSD: A pill-popping teenager owning two cars and a house is just one sign of how out of hand this had gotten. Major pharmaceutical companies came under scrutiny for the addictive nature of painkillers, and a crackdown came. Pill mills started getting shut down.

BONE: I ran out of pills.

GARSD: The doctor bone had been buying pills from got busted. He no longer had a product to sell. A pill that used to be $10 would now cost up to $100 on the black market. And after years of dipping into his own supply, Bone discovered he was completely addicted.

BONE: I didn't know what being dope sick was at the time, so I found out real quick.

GARSD: Bone describes opiate withdrawal as a crippling flu coupled with intense anxiety. And pretty soon, he made the same discovery as scores of other Americans hooked on pain killers - there is another fix- heroin. DEA agent Bill Baxley told us Mexican cartels have been stepping up heroin production to feed Americans' hunger for opiates.

BILL BAXLEY: Now, you can easily see it 40, 50 percent pure and sometimes higher, depending on, you know, what it's been cut with. So the potency of the heroin is off-the-chart higher than it was 20 or 30 years ago.

GARSD: And as I found out talking to Bone, it's cheap.

GARSD: What is that?

BONE: That's heroin.

GARSD: How much does that cost?

BONE: That cost me $9.

GARSD: Nine dollars?

But even though a single fix is so cheap, Bone's own addiction has gotten so bad he shoots up around $1,000 worth of heroin a week. Gone are the easy days of pills and money. This is a man who died last week and, almost immediately after being brought back, hit the streets for his next fix. Death, he says, actually helps him sell more heroin.

BONE: Honestly, in the dope game, if people start dying off what you got, everybody wants it because it's potent. It's good. You know what? You tell me right now somebody died off of - what's that? - blue smiley faces. You tell me somebody died off that, which I know for a fact people have died off of it, right now, that's what I'm looking for. That's what I would go look for because I know it's more potent.

GARSD: Bone says he wishes he could stop using.

BONE: You can't just stop. It controls you. I wish I would have never touched it. I - I wish I would have never touched it.

GARSD: Bone figures the only way he might be able to quit is if he were sent to jail, where he thinks it could be harder to get heroin. When I say goodbye to Bone, it occurs to me that, at the rate he's going, I might not see him again, but I do - a few days later in a mug shot. He got arrested on possession. He'll be released next year. In the picture, his eyes are dark and swollen. For the first time since I've met him, he's smiling ever so slightly. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, North Carolina. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jasmine Garsd is an Argentine-American journalist living in New York. She is currently NPR's Criminal Justice correspondent and the host of The Last Cup. She started her career as the co-host of Alt.Latino, an NPR show about Latin music. Throughout her reporting career she's focused extensively on women's issues and immigrant communities in America. She's currently writing a book of stories about women she's met throughout her travels.