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Heroin gaining ground among addicts in Tampa Bay

Stephanie Otero sat on a bucket behind a duplex with a needle and two plastic bags of heroin.

She was addicted to Roxicodone, also known as roxies, but the pills were hard to come by that summer day last year in Tampa.

"I had never tried heroin in my life," Otero said, but she'd heard it had the same effect as roxies.

Since the eradication of pill mills and law enforcement's crackdown on prescription drugs in recent years, authorities in Tampa Bay are now seeing a resurgence in heroin, an older and sometimes deadlier drug.

Otero, 23, mixed the heroin with water and shot it into her arm.

She was hooked.

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The number of heroin submissions to Pinellas County's forensic lab has more than doubled since 2012. At the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, detectives are investigating about a dozen more cases than in 2013.

"Heroin is a very despicable drug," said Pinellas County Sheriff's Office Capt. Mark Baughman, who oversees the narcotics division. "We don't want it to get out of control. We want to get in front of it."

At the St. Petersburg Police Department, Lt. Antonio Gilliam said heroin is the drug with the highest demand in the city. Investigators have seized larger quantities of the drug, priced at about $100 per gram, equal to 0.03 ounces.

"In the past, heroin was usually packaged in small plastic bags no larger than a thumbprint," Gilliam said. "Now, we're seeing ounces."

A gram of heroin can last from one or two days to a few hours, depending on the user's addiction.

While the price for heroin has remained the same, the cost of prescription drugs like Roxicodone has shot up from about $20 a few years ago to as much as $40 a pill, Baughman said.

"It also affects other crimes," Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office Capt. Frank Losat said. "They steal stuff to pawn it or sell it on the street to get a few dollars to go get their next fix."

Heroin is an opiate, like many prescription drugs used for treating pain. When used to get high, it gives users a feeling of serenity. But unlike pills, which are mass-produced by pharmaceutical companies, the contents and origin of a gram of heroin vary widely.

In Pinellas, detectives have recovered heroin laced with fentanyl, a pain-killer often used during surgery that can turn the drug into a "deadly concoction," Baughman said. Heroin is also purer and stronger than it has been in previous years, giving it a greater allure.

It is manufactured overseas, in countries such as Colombia and the Dominican Republic, then smuggled into the country in container ships or "mules," people who swallow the drugs to get them past airport security.

Investigators have also noted cases in which drug dealers order heroin, as well as other drugs, from black market websites.

In Hillsborough, some dealers have the drugs shipped to abandoned properties, sometimes even occupied homes, which they watch to pick up the package before homeowners arrive, Losat said.

Heroin-related overdoses in Hillsborough also have increased: The medical examiner's office reported two deaths in 2012, compared with 12 so far this year.

During that same time period, oxycodone overdoses slumped from 55 in 2012 to 17 in 2014.

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About three years ago, most of Dr. Jason Fields' patients at DACCO, the Drug Abuse Comprehensive Coordinating Office, were recovering from an opiate pill addiction.

Then came the war on prescription drug abuse. A statewide task force was formed, police shuttered pill mills and officials launched a database that targeted doctor shopping.

It worked. Fields stopped seeing so many patients hooked on pills, but they were replaced by another kind of opiate addict: heroin users.

"You still have opiate-dependent people. So what are they going to do?" Fields said. "They are going to go to another opiate."

Recovering from an opiate addiction presents its challenges. Users who quit on their own can experience muscle aches, fever, diarrhea and vomiting. Many rely on methadone, an opiate given to patients in measured doses at treatment clinics, to get them off the drug.

Half of the about 700 opiate patients at Tampa-based DACCO are recovering heroin addicts. About three years ago, they comprised only a "small fraction" of the treatment program, Fields said.

Among them is Stephanie Otero.

She didn't know roxies existed until three weeks into her relationship with a new boyfriend in 2009 when she found him snorting blue powder with a straw.

He let Otero try it.

"If anybody would have told me this is going to ruin your life, this is going to make you withdraw, this is going to make you live on the street," she said, "I would have never done it."

Within three months, she was injecting the same powder, cooked on a spoon, into her arm. After losing her driver's license and running up debts on court fees related to drug charges, she got clean in 2012.

Otero took classes at Hillsborough Community College and got a job at a KFC. On her 22nd birthday, she told herself she could handle one pill.

Weeks later, she was back on the street sleeping in strangers' homes and motel rooms. When roxies became scarce, she resorted to heroin. She'd walk into a pharmacy off Fletcher Avenue, say she was buying needles for her grandmother, and buy 10 for $3.

"I didn't just want to die. I wanted to die with a needle in my arm," she said. "That was happiness to me."

By December, Otero's stomach started to swell. She took a pregnancy test that came back positive. At St. Joseph's Hospital, doctors confirmed she was 15 weeks pregnant.

"My entire mentality changed," she said.

Otero was admitted in January into DACCO's residential program. She completed the program in August, but still attends weekly support meetings and takes small doses of methadone.

Otero now lives with her mother, takes online college courses, goes to church every week and cares for her 4-month-old baby.

"I don't want my son knowing that his mom was a drug addict," she said. "But if he finds out one day, I overcame that."

Contact Laura C. Morel at or (727)445-4157. Follow @lauracmorel.