“Sin City” didn’t get its name by being chaste. Las Vegas, Nevada, has been a mecca for those wanting to experience life on the wild-side for decades. Unfortunately, this has also opened the door to a massive push of illegal and prescription drugs within city limits—often targeting high school students and young adults.
According to a National Geographic investigation of the city, Las Vegas claims a violent crime rate that’s roughly 120% higher than the national average. This has been largely attributed to drug sales and the securing of the Mexican black tar heroin market.
Drugs are sold in a way that mimics a basic retail transaction, and the casual attitude towards illegal substances has created a huge and ever-growing number of people suffering from addiction.
State and local government entities have come together to take one solid stance on their tolerance and approach to the city’s drug problem, but they still have a long way to go.
Many people blame the reputation of the city for the constant flow of drugs and criminal activity. Legalized prostitution combined with the draw of gambling create a kind of suspended reality for tourists who want to escape from their daily dose of normal.
The City’s Drug of Choice
There’s no denying the increase in heroin and prescription opioid abuse and demand, and it’s begun to rival the methamphetamine domination of the Vegas drug trade. This is a city that takes insomnia and wraps it up in an attractive package of around-the-clock entertainment. Tourists and those living within easy distance of gambling have relied on meth to keep them going long past their physical limits.
Mexican drug cartels have turned their focus to heroin due to its highly addictive nature and huge profit margins created when it’s cut with painkillers. This meant that they needed to find a way to usurp the reigning drug—and they found this in local high schools.
Heroin has started to flow freely through the Las Vegas school systems, using naïve students as an avenue to create the next generation of addicted individuals. Their focus hasn’t been on poverty-stricken communities that take risks to survive, but on wealthier schools in more affluent neighborhoods. This has resulted in a new breed of drug mule that looks far different from traditional stereotypes.
Drug cartels have followed the money and found a freely flowing profit from a group of young adults with a surplus of cash and no real responsibilities. Many of these students are in search of a cheaper high after the narcotic medicine cabinet leftovers run out and they discover the high price of pharmaceuticals purchased on the street.
Heroin can be purchased at a fraction of the price and provides a more potent high for those seeking the effects of opiates. The Las Vegas Sun did a 2014 report on the influx of heroin within the upper middle-class school systems in the Las Vegas Valley. The report featured an interview with local authorities, writing, “High school staff members have reported seeing students blatantly smoke heroin in bathrooms or buy the drug from dealers stationing themselves in nearby neighborhoods and parks, Detective Ailee Burnett, who works in Metro Police’s narcotics section, said.”
In 2017, a study by Roseman University shed some light on drug habits throughout Vegas high schools. The study showed that rural students had a lower rate of prescription drug abuse and usually abused their own medications; while urban students were more inclined to abuse the prescriptions of others. This suggested that the state needed to develop different educational approaches for different social demographics.
Many schools are just starting to implement new tactics to stop addiction from stealing the lives of another generation. They emphasize the realistic approach to the dangers of abusing prescription drugs and the growing popularity of heroin as a replacement. Researchers and addiction professionals believe that showing students the truth complete with facial sores and lonely overdose deaths can create a more negative association with drugs—creating a stronger deterrent than previous warnings.
Over the last few years, the problem has only gotten worse—prompting a large number of new approaches to drug rehabs in Las Vegas. In many schools, educators and health officials have partnered to create a higher rate of student drug testing to make them eligible for school activities. They also offer a less judgmental path to treatment for many students who are unsure of how to seek help.
Studies show that hard drug use from a young age increases the risks of lifelong addiction and eventual overdose. The chemical changes taking place while the brain is still developing can create a neurotransmitter deficit that can interfere with normal brain development.
Many young adult addicts started using prior to the age of 17, and many find themselves living on the streets after high school. They go out into the world with few life skills and have a difficult time keeping a job or procuring treatment for their addiction.
Fighting the Problem on the Streets
Peer-to-peer counseling has become a go-to tactic for reaching out to young people who are suffering from addiction and living on the streets of Vegas. Small facilities have started to spring up in answer to a curiosity about sober living and reaching recovery. These may be needle exchanges or even places that offer food or blankets to those who have no resources of their own.
Some of these smaller charitable programs can work with larger rehab facilities in order to create a bridge from the street to treatment and recovery. People in recovery often use these resources as a way to connect to those still in the throws of active addiction.
For students who began the vicious cycle of substance abuse at such a young age, these peer-to-peer programs allow them to connect with others who understand them. This gives hope to those who have lost their children to the streets and allows those who are suffering from addiction and still learning about life to pick up where they left off.