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"We're seeing heroin cross all socioeconomic lines," says Reuter. "With the purity levels so high, you can smoke it and get just as high as injecting weaker heroin. And smoking it overcomes the social stigma of track marks and needles, so it becomes more socially acceptable, even though it's every bit as addictive and every bit as dangerous."
The most popular method of smoking black tar is to melt it on a thick sheet of aluminum foil and then inhale the tendrils of smoke through a straw or tube, which is known as "chasing the dragon." But when you chase the dragon, you're still playing with fire. The Mexican and Central American dealers downtown say they've seen a rise in the number of their customers who are buying the drug to smoke instead of to inject. Other than methamphetamine addicts, more and more of whom are smoking black tar to come down off a speed rush, customers who chase the dragon tend to be more affluent. They have jobs and homes. The dealers prefer them to homeless street junkies.
"The bad junkies, they're always asking if they can pay half now, pay half later, and they only ever want a little bit in the morning, and then a little bit at night, ten dollars at a time," says Edel, a 22-year-old dealer from San Salvador who's been in Denver almost a year -- long enough to learn the term "yuppie," which he works into his Spanish. "I'd rather sell to the yuppies," he adds. "They buy more at once, and they always have all the money for you. And they're just nicer people."
Edel says his customers are almost evenly divided between the stereotypical, downward-spiral intravenous-use junkies who either live on the street or are close to it, and the dragon-chasers that most people would never guess are regular heroin users.
Watching Edel do business on a sunny Friday in late September is educational. His lunchtime and late-afternoon customers alternate between young men and women in business attire and rattily-dressed street junkies.
"Heroin buyers downtown are maybe about 25 percent your classic homeless or nearly homeless junkies. The rest have jobs; they have their lives somewhat under control," says Lee Hoffer, the former HIV intervention worker. "During my work in Denver, I knew a stockbroker who was a regular buyer, store clerks from Boulder, ordinary folk who absolutely do not look the part."
One of Edel's buyers is a 24-year-old woman who works as a receptionist at a downtown spa. She's wearing a sharp black suit over a tight, sleeveless top that shows off her arms, which are not only devoid of track marks, but well-toned from hours at the gym.
Delia [not her real name] looks the picture of health as she struts down 17th Street, her black jacket slung over her shoulder, and over to her car, which is parked in a nearby garage. Once inside her ride, she ducks down and, with a few practiced motions, melts the tenth of a gram of black tar she scored off Edel on a layered sheet of foil, sucking up the smoke through a thin glass tube. It smells like sweet incense laced with vinegar. This is what she does almost every day during her lunch break. Sometimes after work she scores another tenth of a gram and smokes it up before she goes to work out.
"I just love to lift weights while I'm high," she says, after exhaling her second hit. "Let's go outside. It's too nice to be in here."
Delia's destination is the newly reopened Skyline Park, which $6.5 million in city and private business funds has apparently transformed from a great place to buy heroin to a great place to enjoy its effects. She kicks off her Prada sandals and nestles on the grass with a satisfied hum. "This is yummy," she says.
Delia injected drugs almost every day when she was in her teens and living on the streets of downtown Denver. Then one night she overdosed and almost died. She woke up the next morning and wrote a poem, "Heavenly Hell."
High on smoked heroin, lying in the grass of Skyline Park, her eyes closed, she recites it from memory:
It takes no time to set it up
To prepare for the heavenly hell to come
There is no pain
When the needle hits the vein
And your mind is cumbersome
The blood rolls out
You plunge it in
It courses through your brain
Feels so good
Can't be sin
You'll never be the same again
A sweet taste in your mouth,
Blank look in your eye
Numbness in your soul
This feeling sweetly invades you
Then it takes complete control
There is no way to run away
Once it takes ahold
Its grip is firm
It holds on tight
To it, your soul is sold
So if you want to end your life
In pain, suffering, and sorrow
Stick a needle in your arm...
It's more demented than picking up a knife
And taking your own tomorrow.
It's been seven years since Delia last put a needle in her vein. She's never been off drugs entirely, she says, not since she was ten years old. It was coke for a long time, but then earlier this year she rediscovered heroin when she smoked it at a party, and now she's hooked again.