WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - New Hanover County has the second highest rate of heroin overdose deaths of all counties in North Carolina and tops the list when adjusted for population, according to the North Carolina Department of Health & Human Services.
The Cape Fear region is considered to be a significant stop for traffickers. Dope is brought down from areas like New Jersey and Maryland along a corridor that's casually nicknamed the "Heroin Highway."
There's never been a definitive answer as to why the Cape Fear region has become such a hotbed for dealers and users. Some guess heroin has followed it's addicts, who are now relocating to North Carolina's coast. Others blame the port, but no one knows for certain.
It's easy to believe that heroin use is relegated to dark alleys, late night hours and low-life junkies. Reality, however, paints a different picture. After a six month investigation and hours of surveillance video, the veil is about to come off.
"There's a world where you have your blinders on, and there's a whole another world here where this is a major problem," said Abby, a recovering addict.
WECT started delving into heroin use in Wilmington after hearing that addicts could be seen in plain sight and in broad daylight, shooting up outside many area pharmacy parking lots.
That seemed unlikely, until May 7.
Shortly after 7 p.m. in the CVS parking lot where Oleander and Dawson streets converge, a red Honda Accord parked next to our unmarked station car. Without too much strain, it was clear to see the two people inside were getting ready to shoot heroin.
While the driver went inside to purchase a bag of syringes from the pharmacy, the passenger began setting up their fix. At one point, being so bold to place bags on the dashboard where they could easily be seen.
Up until recently, anyone could buy syringes over-the-counter at the front check-out of that particular CVS and several other pharmacies for about $3. The store has since changed their policy, now requiring a valid prescription for insulin.
Until that change occurred, it was a revolving door of addicts picking up their syringes and quickly getting back to their cars to either inject or go buy the dope.
Addicts say when syringes are harder to come by, sharing picks up – a worst-case scenario for the spread of diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C.
"There is a lot of heroin in this city," Abby said. "There are a lot of users in this city and it's happening daily right out in the open."
The two we spotted in the Honda would have shot up right next to us had a fire truck not spooked them. As they move the car, the driver began licking the bags of heroin, presumably to get every last drop.
Once parked again, the female driver's head dropped and she began nodding in and out of consciousness.
She nearly crashed into a building after waking up and trying to drive again. At 7:31 p.m. the woman pulled onto Market Street and disappeared in the traffic.
WECT had already alerted 911 who dispatched officers. No record of them finding her could be found the next day.
This driver is not a unique story.
"Heroin is the new crack for this area," said Captain Donald Taft of the New Hanover County Sheriff's Office.
According to Brunswick County Lt. Steve Lanier, a "big seizure" for his drug agents 15 years ago was about 10 to 15 bags of dope. Today, that number has skyrocketed to anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000 bags.
The Brunswick County Sheriff's office seized 350 dosage units of heroin in 2011. Just three year years later, 308 dosage units were seized. Halfway through 2015, over 8,000 dosage units have already been seized.
The Narcotics Division is manned by 11 drug agents and Lanier hopes to add more manpower. New Hanover County's team has 17 detectives, two of whom process evidence. The New Hanover County narcotics unit also partners with federal agencies to extend drug and criminal enforce beyond jurisdictional boundaries.
When we road shotgun with agents from both the Brunswick County and New Hanover County drug units over 100 bags were seized on one day in just a few hours.
"I'm not exaggerating when I say this, [there are] 110 people that I can go to and buy heroin from in this town," said Courtland Rogers, a recovering addict.
Heroin use is no longer an inner-city problem. Today, your "typical" user is young, white and from a well-off area.
While our investigation captured users shooting up in public places, the camera was only able to skim the surface of addiction. When it comes to heroin, it's hard to stereotype.
"We have seen every age from 15 years old to 75 years old," Brunswick County Lt. Steve Lanier said. "Man, woman, child, every race, color and creed you can imagine. It has no boundary."
Users and treatment center staff say physicians, nurses and anesthesiologists are some of the most at-risk populations, with easy access to syringes and opiates. Given their field, their use is easier to hide.
Addicts will tell you there are just as many lawyers and CEOs using heroin as anyone else.
"If they already have the heroin on them and they need a needle they pull up, run into a pharmacy, find the syringes, buy the syringes, run back to the car and before anybody knows what's happening they're shooting up heroin within 30 to 45 seconds," Lanier explained.
A water bottle usually accompanied the syringe purchase. To inject, typically the user will mix the heroin with water inside the bottle cap, wrap the seat belt around their arm and shoot up.
Heroin can also be smoked but the high is greater via injection.
As quickly as they shoot up they are getting rid of the evidence.
We saw users toss their now-empty bags and dirty syringes out their windows before driving off. In other cases, they'd nod off for a short nap first.
"When we pull up on them to see what they are doing - they're completely passed out at the steering wheel, foot on the brake needle still in their arm," Lanier described. "We've also had people that have shot up bags of heroin and before we could get to them to stop them, got out onto the road."
In far too many cases, an overdose occurs right in the parking lot.
According to data from the New Hanover County 911 Center, the highest concentration of overdoses occur along the Market Street corridor.
When working with Brunswick and New Hanover County narcotics units, most car searches started and ended the same. After a lengthy denial of drug use, the user eventually broke down to a full confession after agents explained the consequences of refusing to cooperate. Quickly, bags were pulled out of bras and the location of hidden syringes was offered up.
In many cases, the user was surprisingly eager to tell officers where their syringes were. North Carolina recently passed a partial syringe decriminalization bill (HB850) that prevents prosecution for possession of a needle if the user alerts the officer prior to a search.
The bill, backed heavily by the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (NCHRC) was designed to protect law enforcement from accidental "sticks" and the subsequent risk of contracting communicable diseases like Hepatitis C.
In the past 10 years, two needle stick injuries happened in both New Hanover and Brunswick County Sheriff's Offices and five within the Wilmington Police Department.
"I was searching underneath a seat of a car, and when I brought my arm out it was actually handing from my forearm," Taft remembered.
WECT was witness to more than a dozen car searches during its six month investigation. In some cases, a physical search is necessary to retrieve hidden bags.
"I've seen people put stuff inside of them, if that makes sense," said Rogers. "[And in] certain spots in cars that they would not expect police to search."
In sunroofs, behind cell phone covers, tucked between seats, and hidden in paperwork and purses, there was little surface area that agents did't scavenge through.
If it awns't in the car, it usually awns't far away. We watched users toss bags and syringes into bushes, underneath their car and into public garbage cans. All of which puts the public at risk for an accidental stick.
"We're finding used needles, caps to needles, used heroin bags...it's a never ending cycle," Lanier said.
With such a potent drug, delivering such a quick high, the real danger to the public occurs when users pull out onto the roads.
"The last thing I remember, it just sounded kind of like a train coming behind you," Carson Logan recalled. "But it was a pickup truck. I didn't see it coming."
Logan and a friend were driving down Market Street May 24 and stopped at the light on Kerr Avenue. Seconds later the trunk of his car was crushed up to the driver's seat. The impact threw his head into the steering wheel and knocked him out.
The driver of the truck barely hit the brakes, driving full speed, before hitting Logan's car.
According to the Wilmington Police Department, a witness had seen the two men in the pickup truck nodding off in the Walmart parking lot. Heroin paraphernalia was found in the truck.
Logan suffered a bad blow to his right eye but was otherwise uninjured.
The damage would have been far worse had he not just dropped off the second passenger.
"If anyone had been in my backseat pretty much they would have been killed," Logan said.
"If you have an addiction I pray that you get help," Abby pleaded. "But wait until you get home where you are going to be somewhere for a long time before you are driving on the road, nodding off, putting other people at risk."
Law enforcement and other first responders say they can tell when a new, potent line of heroin hits the Cape Fear area. The number of overdose calls they respond to suddenly rises.
One of the biggest factors contributing to overdose is a relapse. Users quickly build up a tolerance to heroin. When they relapse using the volume of dope they left off with, it can easily send them into an overdose.
EMS units in New Hanover County are equipped with Naloxone (also called Narcan). By 2016, Wilmington Police Department, Brunswick County Sheriff's Office and New Hanover County Sheriff's deputies also plan on carrying the medicine.
Naloxone reverses an opioid overdose.
The North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition credits naloxone with saving more than 600 lives from a fatal overdose as of June 24, 2015.
Wilmington first responders say when naloxone is given, the user usually has no recollection of nodding off. They are completely unaware that they nearly died and, in some cases, are angry their high was interrupted.
In the body, heroin turns into morphine which has a chemical structure similar to endorphins. These chemicals keep neurons from firing, thereby easing pain.
When morphine binds to the brain's opioid receptors, users feel a rush of euphoria or "high."
A heroin overdose puts the body into a state of extreme relaxation. The user falls asleep, blood pressure drops and the respiratory system shuts down.
"With bags going around here that are killing people - that's what addicts want are those bags because they're the most potent," Rogers explained.
"All it takes is one bad bag, and you're DEAD," Abby said bluntly.
"The loss of life due to a drug that we are in charge of combating....is a hard thing to swallow," Lanier said. "As drug investigators we get hung up on the amount of drugs we're seizing or we're high-fiving on great busts. But whenever somebody you've dealt with for years ends up overdosing, it's a hard pill to swallow."