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Is cheese a lethal drug

 Ireland's Big Issue 14 June 2019

When most of us hear the word ‘cheese’ we think of the healthy dairy product made from milk that is rich in calcium and good for us; we do not think of a highly addictive drug that has already killed dozens of young teenagers in America and has the potential to kill hundreds more. Over the past three years this new drug, a lethal combination of Mexican black tar heroin, water and over- the -counter pain relief products like Tylenol, has been become the drug of choice among the high school going population in the Dallas area of Texas. Jennifer May looks at a new drug phenomenon among young people that has spread in American and could conceivably find its way abroad. (1368 words) - By Jennifer May

When most of us hear the word 'cheese' we think of the healthy dairy product made from milk that is rich in calcium and good for us; we do not think of a highly addictive drug that has already killed dozens of young teenagers in America and has the potential to kill hundreds more.  Over the past three years this new drug, a lethal combination of  Mexican black tar heroin, water and over- the -counter pain relief products like Tylenol, has been become the drug of choice among the high school going population in the Dallas area of Texas, and has caused a terrifying number of deaths already.

'Cheese' is not only potent, but it is very cheap, selling for about $10 a gram, or $2 for one hit - therefore it is becoming the drug of choice for Middle-School Children (around the ages of 12 -16) who can easily afford to buy it.  The name 'cheese' which may derive from the fact that it looks like grated parmesan cheese, or from the Spanish word 'chiva' (heroin), sounds non-threatening, so the young people buying it are not aware of the serious  side effects that can accompany its usage: addiction and death.  The drug causes drowsiness and lethargy accompanied by euphoria. Excessive thirst and disorientation can also be experienced, but only if the user is lucky enough to survive the experience:  because users are essentially putting two 'downers' into their bodies, the heart rate can slow down so much that it stops altogether, causing users to die in their sleep. Like all opiates it is also highly addictive.

Since 2005 over 60 teenagers have been killed by ingesting 'cheese.'  One of the earliest published incidences of death from the drug was Karla Becerra, an 18 year old high school senior who was found dead by her father in their home in West Dallas after snorting 'cheese' and drinking.  A few months later another teenager, 17 year old Keith Witherspoon died in Mesquite -a town southeast of Dallas, which suggested that usage of the drug was spreading. In 2007 the people dying were even younger: Oscar Gutierrez was only 15 when he died, after previously surviving an overdose.  After his death his family spoke openly about how he died, in an effort to increase public awareness as to the dangers associated with it and community rallies followed as parents urged the police and school district to become more active in fighting against the distribution of the drug. After the death of another young man, Fernando Cortez, a few weeks later, the community became even more galvanised in their actions against this new killer in their midst.

As teenagers continued to die throughout 2007, parents and police organized a rally and the Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy gave a press conference in Dallas praising local efforts to stem the use of the drug; many pharmacies in the area also removed Tylenol and similar drugs from their shelves in an effort to make 'cheese' less accessible, and the number of arrests linked to the selling of the drug increased by almost 50 per cent.  Schools also became involved holding lectures, assemblies PTA meetings and classroom discussions in an effort to alert teenagers to the dangers of using cheese heroin;  a public service announcement was aired on local television and a helpline was established for youngsters to access support, however despite these efforts teenagers continued to die from the drug and usage began to spread across the state: by the end of 2007 the death of over 40 young people in north Texas had been attributed to the drug.

While the drug has only shown up in Texas, authorities across America are concerned that it is only a matter of time before 'cheese' usage spreads across the country. And the real tragedy of surrounding the drug is the age demographic of the children using the drug - in 2006 the youngest recorded arrest for possession was only 13 years old and by 2007 a Dallas police officer, Monty Moncibais noted over 70 arrests in children aged from ten to sixteen. Drug treatment centres across the state also noted that 'cheese' addicts were now as common as those seeking help for addiction to marijuana, and they had to lower the age of those admitted to their programmes in order to cope with the problem.

In 2008 thanks to the sterling efforts on the part of community activists and the police, arrests for 'cheese' decreased in Texas, however some people in the field believed that this was less an indication that usage had lessened than users were taking more care not to come to the attention of authorities, as drug treatment centres reported no drop in the numbers of those requiring their services for addiction to the drug.  The commander of the Dallas Police narcotics division also said that he had encountered more white and black teenagers using 'cheese' where-as previously usage had been mostly among the Hispanic population.

However this year has brought resurgence in 'cheese'-related deaths. On January 14th Marisol Prado a fifteen year old girl was found dead in her home from a suspected 'cheese' over-dose.  Marisol had been struggling with her addiction to the drug and had run away from home three times in the previous year however she had entered a drugs rehabilitation programme and had seemed to be doing well. She had written a letter to her mother expressing her remorse and her determination to put drugs behind her and returned home just before Christmas, enrolling in school again - it seemed as if her life was back on track.  However Thomas Jefferson High School, the school she enrolled in was said to be rife with 'cheese' users and a week later Marisol was dead.  Her friend Sarah Aviles whom she met in rehab was also found dead in a Dallas motel less than a week later. The Tarrant County area of Texas has already recorded 16 deaths among teenagers in their area since January 1st.

One group doing their best to fight the spread of addiction through education, community action and rehabilitation is the Today Foundation.  Founded in 1984 by Dallas executive Richard H. Collins, it developed a crime-fighting agenda with the help of then Senator JE Brown.  They encourage the use of an Ion Scanner in schools, which can locate the presence of 'cheese' with just one swab of a pack-back or any other personal item.  While this itself would not deal with the problem of addiction and the socio-economic reasons for the widespread usage of the drug, it could help identify dealers and users and begin making schools a safer environment for teenagers. They also believe that galvanising communities and working with and supporting their Texas Anti-Drug programme as being the first step towards eradicating 'cheese' from their communities, but it looks like they have a hell of battle on their hands:

'Users don't realise how quickly they can get addicted to heroin, even heroin that is diluted' Dr Byron Adinoff, a drug abuse specialist at the University of Texas told the Dallas Morning Star. 'These kids are not even aware of it because they are taking it every day. Then they find themselves in withdrawal.  Everything hurts and everything aches and you just want to die.  It's a very difficult drug to get away from.  Once you get addicted it has changed your brain.'

 

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