This is Ground Zero for partying.
It's 2:30 a.m. in Ybor City, a mecca for the young and tireless.
A cavernous club is lit only by the insistent flash of a strobe. The music is so loud it throbs against the sternum, driving out all coherent thought, all conversation. In the concrete pit that is the dance floor, bodies bob up and down like pogo sticks in a thick swirl of nicotine and patchouli.
Some of the kids here on this night most likely are running on ecstasy, the current fuel of choice among young clubgoers. Tampa has a midnight curfew for teens 16 and younger, and some bars refuse admittance to anyone under 18. Bar managers try valiantly to keep drugs out of their establishments, but many partiers are already high when they arrive.
Besides ecstasy, the menu includes Rohypnol, a powerful sedative otherwise known as "roofies." Blue capsules called Smurfs combine the two worlds: a potent cocktail of cocaine and ecstasy.
But an even stronger presence has been causing ripples of concern in drug-prevention circles, a drug that enslaved and killed in the '60s, faded away in the shadow of cocaine and now is re-emerging to tempt a new generation.
It's cheaper than ever, much stronger than it used to be and riding a wave of coolness that has landed it, in the past few weeks, on the cover of Rolling Stone, Allure, Entertainment Weekly, this week's Newsweek and in a controversial new film about Scottish junkies, Trainspotting.
Heroin '90s-style is potent. No longer do users have to inject the drug, risking HIV from shared needles. Now they can smoke or snort it, sliding into a euphoria that's calm and relaxed compared to cocaine's rush. The trouble is, because it's so pure, a user can easily overdose.
The danger of the drug only seems to add to its cachet. After Smashing Pumpkins keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin died of an overdose in July, the most recent of several heroin-related fatalities in the music world, there was a surge in sales of Red Rum, the brand of heroin Melvoin was using. (Red Rum, one of the purer strains, is "murder" spelled backward.)
Actor Robert Downey Jr.'s high-profile battle with heroin addiction has spawned stories about rampant heroin use in Hollywood. It's also reportedly a big part of the fashion scene: The "junkie chic" look is dominated by wafer-thin models with lank, greasy hair and dark circles under their eyes.
And heroin has begun to infiltrate the Tampa Bay area.
Dianne Clarke is clinical director of juvenile services at Operation PAR, Pinellas County's largest drug rehab program. She sees young people on all kinds of drugs _ mostly alcohol, marijuana, LSD and cocaine.
"Over the last two or three years, there have been occasions when we've had as many as three kids in treatment for heroin at once," she said. "We're seeing the beginning of the slide up toward heroin and other opiates."
Since Operation PAR's new juvenile receiving facility opened in May, she said, five teens who have been admitted to the program said they had recently used heroin.
Overdoses aren't limited to rock musicians and movie stars. According to the Pinellas-Pasco medical examiner's office, 15 deaths have been linked to heroin in those two counties since December 1994. That's only two fewer than during the same period in greater Orlando, which now is considered to be the heroin capital of Florida.
Hillsborough has recorded two heroin-related deaths so far this year, already equaling 1995's total. Hernando and Citrus counties have recorded none, although Tampa police say several of the heroin buyers they've arrested recently had driven from that area to score a fix in Tampa.
Heroin is turning up more often at the Pinellas County Forensic Laboratory, where drugs seized in arrests are analyzed for their content. In 1993, for example, only 22 samples of heroin were logged. That number shot up to 162 the next year and to 239 in 1995. So far this year, the lab has received 209 heroin samples, almost as many as all of last year.
"Ybor City is where the kids are telling us is the majority of the heroin they're getting their hands on," Clarke said. "Some of them got it free, either from their friends or from dealers who want to start a new trend."
That's how it started for Lisa, whom Clarke calls an "Ybor kid."
Clarke used a pseudonym for the young woman, hoping not to alienate her from seeking help. Lisa has undergone treatment at PAR three times in as many years. The last time, she was there for four months, doing quite well. She left on a pass one day and never came back.
Lisa was 13, living with her mother in Tampa and making straight A's.
"She's a beautiful girl, long red hair," Clarke said. "She wanted to be a writer. She started hanging out with this older, artsy crowd. They were all about 27, 28."
Lisa already had tried alcohol and marijuana. With her new friends, she started snorting heroin. Like many long-term users, she eventually switched to injecting the drug. It became a habit she could not escape.
Last year she was living with her dealer in a mobile home in Brandon, working as a prostitute. After a suicide attempt, she landed at PAR.
She's now 16 _ and no one knows where she is.
Tricked by the high
"It's the ultimate escape. You do this and you feel fine. You're just kind of floatin' along."
That's how a St. Petersburg woman remembers heroin.
She is 28 now. She did "the horse," as she and her junkie friends called it, when she was 23 and living in a large city in the South.
She doesn't want to name that city or give her name because she's clean now. She has another life, one nothing like the days when she was high on heroin.
She hung out with a group of jazz musicians who idolized the '60s artists who did heroin.
"We were all reading books about it, like Naked Lunch and Basketball Diaries. And you're like, "Well, Thelonious Monk was a heroin addict.' "
The worst thing about heroin is how easily a person can get hooked, she says.
"I don't think somebody can do it once and not want to do it again. You get tricked by it. You say you're only gonna do it every little so often, like on the weekends. But then those little-so-oftens get closer and closer together until you're doing it every day, twice a day, 10 times a day."
Twice, she overdosed.
The second time she woke up in a friend's apartment, temporarily blind. That scared her so much that she decided to kick the drug.
This summer she has heard about heroin parties in St. Petersburg.
"Just in the last month I've been hearing that the cool kids are dippin' into heroin. That you'll go to somebody's house and there are syringes on the coffee table and people on the couches noddin' out. That just terrifies me."
Blast from the past
Among treatment admissions, heroin is now the primary drug of abuse in five U.S. cities, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse: New York City, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Newark, N.J.
In June, the Office of National Drug Control Policy held a press conference on the disturbing resurgence of heroin. It was announced that the Partnership for a Drug-Free America was launching a $2-million ad campaign on the dangers of heroin use, aimed at young people.
"We saw some troubling data among young kids 12 to 17 who report seeing little risk in heroin use," said Steve Dnistrian, a spokesman for the Partnership.
"The social signals these kids are getting from films like Trainspotting and the number of rock musicians using the drug, that really concerns us. This is a generation that is being exposed for the first time to heroin. They weren't alive to see the tragedies (of overdoses) in the '60s."
Survey results compiled by the National Institute on Drug Abuse confirm that more and more children as young as 13 are experimenting with heroin. Between 1991 and 1995, the number of high school seniors who said they had tried heroin almost doubled.
Another worry is that new, stronger strains of heroin are proving deadly to users of all ages.
The number of hospital emergency room visits involving heroin increased 68 percent between 1988 and 1994, then another 27 percent from the first half of 1994 to the first half of last year.
In May more than 100 people were taken to emergency rooms in Philadelphia and Baltimore, violently delirious after ingesting a dangerous mixture of highly potent heroin, cocaine, thiamine (a vitamin), dextromethorphan (a cough suppressant) and scopolamine (a motion-sickness drug.) It had been sold under the brand name "Homicide."
Rumors fly of other adulterants in heroin: procaine (an anesthetic), baking soda, meat tenderizer, laxatives for infants, even arsenic.
"What it's cut with depends on the niceness of the dealer," said Clarke, at Operation PAR.
"Heroin at its source is usually very pure, but every person who touches that drug along the way may alter it. They call it "stepping' on it. By the time it gets to the streets, it might have been stepped on as many as 10 times."
In Florida, most of the heroin sold is 20 percent pure or less. But that's high, considering that a decade ago the average street heroin was only 4 percent to 7 percent pure.
"When it first arrives from Colombia, it's about 90 percent pure. High-grade," said special agent Pamela Brown in the Miami office of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
For decades, most of the heroin worldwide came from Burma. Colombia has become a major new producer in the last few years. Many street dealers, sensing a potential new market, now sell cocaine and heroin, in a practice called "double-breasting." Often they'll offer a free sample of heroin with every cocaine purchase, to hook new users.
In the heroin holes of Tampa Bay, police officers such as Sgt. Steve Jarrett see the drug changing hands every day.
In Jarrett's office at the Ponce de Leon housing complex in Tampa, there's a bulletin board with Polaroid snapshots of recent drug seizures, each one with a handwritten caption: 22 capsules heroin; 12 grams heroin and paraphernalia; 117 decks of heroin (tiny aluminum foil packets containing one dose each).
These are the hard-core users.
A habit may begin with weekend snorting, but eventually it winds up here _ 20 blocks north of Ybor City.
"Some of these people can go through four or five decks a day," Jarrett said.
"They cook it in spoons or bottle caps. Most of the time, we'll see a buy and by the time we stop their car, they're already shooting up. The needle is in their arm."
_ Times staff writer JULIAN JABBAR HILLS and researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.
ALL ABOUT HEROIN
STREET NAMES: Junk, Smack, "H", horse, China White, Black Tar
BRAND NAMES: Super Buick, Red Rum ("murder" spelled backward), F-16, Homicide, DOA, Body Bag, Death Row, No Way Out, Gunfire, Sweet Dreams, Black Jack, Blue Thunder, Four Aces, Tango & Cash, Graveyard, Wicked
CHIPPIE: A small heroin habit.
CHIPPER: Someone who takes heroin only on weekends.
CHASE THE DRAGON: A popular method of smoking. The user smears a small amount of heroin on aluminum foil, then heats it and inhales the vapor through a straw.
TIN ART: Squares of foil with burn marks on them.
SICK: Needing another dose to feel comfortable.
FORMS IN WHICH IT'S SOLD
GLASSINE BAG: Usually contains one hit: $10-$15.
BALLOON OR CONDOM: Dealers sometimes hide them in their mouths and spit one into the hand of a buyer: $10.
GEL CAPSULE: $10-$20.
PLASTIC BAG: Tiny zippered plastic bag normally used for rings; $10-$15.
DECK: Aluminum foil square folded into a tiny packet; contains one hit or 1/10th gram: $10. Packs of 10 decks, or bundles: $100.
SYMPTOMS OF THE HEROIN USER
Grogginess, nodding out, vomiting, pin-size pupils, scratching, constipation.
THE HIGH, IN THEIR WORDS
"Take the best orgasm you've ever had, multiply it by a thousand, and you're still nowhere near it."
_ Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting
"Every blade of grass in the universe is in the right place and you feel a kind of toes-up wash of love over your whole body. It's the kind of high where you call up the phone company and thank them for the service."
_ Jerry Stahl, TV writer (Moonlighting, Twin Peaks, Thirtysomething), quoted in Entertainment Weekly
"It's about some kind of cottonwood paradise, and a feeling of immunity. It's about oblivion . . ."
_ Trainspotting director Danny Boyle in Details magazine
"It was like a long heat wave through my body. Every ache or pain or sadness or guilty feeling was completely flushed out."
_ Leonardo DiCaprio in The Basketball Diaries, a 1995 movie
THE LOW, IN THEIR WORDS
"You're freezing, burning, your hair hurts, you feel like your skin has been napalmed. You can't stop puking."
_ Jerry Stahl in Entertainment Weekly
"Your nose is running, your stomach cramps. Your legs feel like they've played six straight games on top of each other and the voice is always there, in the back of your head: "Just one more time, then we'll stop.' "
_ Leonardo DiCaprio in The Basketball Diaries
"Sweat, chills, nausea, pain and craving. Need like nothing else I have ever known."
_ Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting
Department; Operation PAR; Miami Herald; Playboy magazine.
Compiled by Times staff writer JEANNE MALMGREN
Sources: Dr. Nestor Milian, medical director at Tampa General Health Care University Psychiatry Center; Tampa Police