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Young painkiller addicts switch to heroin, and overdose rates rise

For 22-year-old Anna Taylor from Dana Point, the path to heroin addiction began by pilfering through a family member’s medicine cabinet. She became sober this year.
For 22-year-old Anna Taylor from Dana Point, the path to heroin addiction began by pilfering through a family member’s medicine cabinet. She became sober this year.
Daniel A. Anderson/California Watch
For 22-year-old Anna Taylor from Dana Point, the path to heroin addiction began by pilfering through a family member’s medicine cabinet. She became sober this year.
Darren McCollester/Getty Images

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Reported by Sarah Varney and Erin Marie Daly, in collaboration with California Watch. Read the first report in this series.

As the street price of pain pills like OxyContin has soared, some teens and young adults are turning to heroin for a cheaper high. Addiction specialists say this trend is leading to a growing number of overdoses in wealthier areas of California, including Orange County.

Anna Taylor grew up in Dana Point, an affluent community near Laguna Beach, dutifully wearing a plaid skirt and cardigan to the Catholic high school she attended. In ninth grade, she moved to the local public school and sang jazz, opera, pop and blues in a prestigious arts program.

Now, the tattoos and scars running up and down her arms trace her slide from overweight choir singer to teenage drug addict.

“Singing was my life, up until I started doing drugs," she says. "And then my life turned to drugs being everything and singing coming last.”

Taylor started getting high at 14, when she started sneaking pain pills from her dying father’s medicine cabinet.

“Like, the first night that we ever did it, my girlfriend was like, ‘Maybe we should try it? What’s the big deal? Your dad seems to be happy when he takes them. Like I think we would be fine.’ And so the first night that I took the pills, I don’t even know what I took. Some opiate. Really strong. Probably morphine, because I was just numb. You know? It was like as soon as it kicked in, I didn’t have a care in the world. Not one care."

This kind of initiation into prescription painkiller abuse is common. According to government surveys, more than 70 percent of first-time abusers obtain pills from friends or relatives for free. But by the time Taylor’s father died of cancer two years later, she had developed a tolerance for the drug that made the carefree feeling that first hooked her less and less attainable. After she underwent gastric bypass surgery, the relentless pull of addiction led her to illegal drugs she had once sworn never to try. When a friend offered her heroin, she said yes.

“It kind of scared me because I’d never done that," she says. "But as soon as it hit me, like, it’s weird talking about, but it’s the best feeling I’ve ever had in my whole entire life.”

Taylor went to great lengths to feed her addiction. She’d score heroin at Narcotics Anonymous Recovery meetings and make risky, late-night runs to Santa Ana to buy it from back-alley dealers.

“Me and my friend would go up there and she was 16 and I was 18. We were two young girls going to pick up heroin," Taylor says. "We had no idea what we were doing. That is when the heroin…took my life over.”

Drugs come in and out of vogue, their use influenced by potency and price. For hard-core addicts like Taylor, abundant Mexican black-tar heroin is now a cheaper option than many painkillers sold on the street. Experts say that’s one reason heroin overdoses among young people have nearly doubled in Orange County since 2007.

The switch from pills to heroin is catching many parents unaware.

Tish Westrup is a striking, blond-haired mother of two whose daughter Cassie died last year of a heroin overdose. Walking through her well-appointed home in the rural community of Menifee, Westrup passes a poster-sized photo of Cassie over the entrance.

“I never saw marks on her arms. You know, she would wear tank tops and stuff," Westrup says. “I think some people go through a period where they just don’t want pictures, but I’ve had them out from the beginning because it just helps me."

Cassie Westrup followed a path to heroin similar to Anna Taylor's. She was in fashion- design school and living in Orange County. Over lunch one day, she began sobbing uncontrollably, confessing to her mother that she was hooked on Oxycontin.

“At the time I didn’t realize the addictive nature of the Oxycontin," says Tish Westrup. "I thought, ‘Well, I’m just going to run out to the health food store, and we’re going to get a liver cleanse, and we’re going to do it the holistic way and we’re just going to flush her system.’ And that didn’t happen.”

Like other addicts, Cassie moved in and out of pricey rehab centers, and her mother tried to keep a close watch on her. One night Cassie shot up with a 19-year-old boy she knew from weekly rehab meetings. Then 22, she drove home and stumbled into her bedroom, where her mother confronted her.

“And I said, ‘You’re high on something right now. What did you do?’" says Westrup. "She told me ‘Oxy.’ And I thought, okay, well she has smoked that forever. She did that for a long time."

Unaware her daughter had actually taken heroin, Westrup told Cassie to go to bed – that they would talk in the morning. Upstairs, she and her husband debated whether to call 911 or the police. Westrup decided to sleep in a loft with a view of Cassie’s door. She woke throughout the night and saw the light still on in her daughter's room. At 6 a.m., she went to check on her.

“When I heard the TV on and I still saw the light under the door, I just had a really bad feeling. And then when I opened the door, I knew. Instantly. She was in her bed, under the covers. Her arms were crossed. She had a remote in one hand. And looks like she was sleeping.”

Cassie’s heart had stopped beating.

When Westrup tells this story, she's sitting on her couch, just a few feet from where her daughter died. That was last year, and her days are now filled with raising her 12-year-old son and running a foundation that promotes awareness of drug and alcohol abuse in schools.

Taylor has also seen death close up.

“It’s like taking over," she says. "I have never heard of so many people dying in my whole entire life.”

After surviving two overdoses and losing several friends to heroin, Taylor quit taking drugs. She moved in with her mother and spends her time working with other recovering addicts and taking care of her young children. “It’s like I can be that mom that I wanted to be because I’m taking this seriously this time,” she says.

Taylor has been sober nine months. She has distanced herself from her past. But it’s not always easy. When she sees someone doing drugs at a party, she has to rely on her willpower to walk away, or risk losing everything all over again.