Hollywood Faces a Heroin Summer
"Oh my God, Kaki, wake up! Wake-the-fuck-up! He's not breathing!" Those unsettling words that never presage anything but tragedy broke a Hollywood weekend's early morning quiet. An earnest 911 call for help followed, and within minutes a cherry glow cut through the dark, as the Los Angeles Fire Department responded to a Craftsman bungalow to find two overdose victims.
These professionals saved one of them. And as dawn broke, illuminating first the cantilevered homes and foliage of the Hollywood Hills, then this ubiquitous back alley down below, the scene it revealed was remarkably banal, undramatic. Not the way it goes down in Breaking Bad.
Until the coroner arrived, a detail of cops stood guard and took turns eyeing the thin, handsome dead man's tattoo, which said "Fuck Pigs."
Then Waiyaiki Joel Njoroge, 24 — according to his grieving family, a descendant of the tribal chief Waiyaiki Wa Hinga, who in the 1890s fought British colonizers in Kenya — was wrapped in a white sheet, placed on a gurney and quietly rolled to the curb.
Kaki, as he was called, was no hard-core drug abuser. The substance that stopped his heart remains unclear, although friends feared it was heroin.
His sister, Starr Njoroge, 31, a film editor and vocalist, tells L.A. Weekly: "It's unfair, it's unfortunate. He had the rest of his life ahead. There are doubts, questions. But the saddest part is that this might not hit home: Each time you play with substances — you don't know what they are or where they came from — you're playing Russian roulette."
A film editor who arrived in Los Angeles a little more than a year ago, her brother attended Los Angeles Film School until he couldn't afford the tuition. The son of a college professor, he was enthusiastic about a career editing music videos. Njoroge reveled in the creative opportunities the city offers, says his sister.
The night before he died, upon being told to check out a casting notice for a low-budget horror flick, he'd replied, "I can get down with skinny zombies" in his slow, deliberate way, flashing a smile that endeared him to the girls.
Although toxicology tests won't be completed for several weeks, Kaki Njoroge may be part of what is shaping up to be another group victimized by the Great Recession, individuals who will join the suicides, the foreclosed, the homeless and the young jobless: reckless drug users with time on their hands and access to cheap, potent narcotics.
"We have noticed in the last few years a much more laissez-faire attitude about heroin, particularly among young people," says Dr. Stephen Dansiger, executive director of One80Center in Beverly Hills, a treatment center for chemical dependence.
A practicing Zen Buddhist who uses meditation and other approaches in dealing with addiction, Dansiger says, "Whatever healthy fear people tended to have about opiates in the past seems to be missing. It's a bit scary, and a rise in fatalities is only going to be one of the consequences."
The Los Angeles County Department of the Coroner, which routinely runs toxicology tests on unexplained deaths of anyone younger than 50, even in accidents, tells the Weekly the county isn't aware of an increase in heroin deaths.
But other municipalities around Southern California and across the nation have reported large spikes in drug deaths among the young.
A recent rash of heroin overdoses in Simi Valley was reported by the Weekly in June. In the past year and a half, the Ventura County Sheriff's Department says there have been five deaths and 22 overdoses related to the drug.
Those fatal overdoses were four 20-something men who died at home and a woman who was found dead in a gas station bathroom, according to KTLA.
The Glendale police report heroin-related crimes are rising in that tree-lined Los Angeles suburb, and the San Diego County Medical Examiner's office released data showing an increase in heroin deaths among people younger than 30.
While officials can't attest to a countywide pattern, clinicians in the city's drug-recovery community can.
Bernadine Fried, clinical director of One80Center, says, "What I've seen is that with the newer users, people who aren't habituated, it can be lethal. In the last couple of years, the potency level is very strong" for heroin.
Combined with that change in potency, "The culture of the 20-somethings, it's become part of a scene. It's stronger than people think, and they experiment — and die."
These are not the underclass junkies of Panic in Needle Park, the 1969 film persiflage of junkie culture in which users on Manhattan's Upper West Side are keenly attuned to the ways of getting high and form a community to maintain their lifestyle.
She says that in her clinic serving clients drawn, in part, from the upscale Los Angeles Westside, "I work with an elitist group of kids, with a lot of money to get themselves into trouble. Private schools, trust funds."
For whatever reasons, she is finding "many more heroin-specific admissions, 19 to 28 [years old], as opposed to other dependencies."
A licensed therapist, Fried has worked in the field for 22 years; she's also a former heroin user whose brother died of an overdose at 34.
"It is really plentiful, and there's a cultural element," she says. "It used to be Ecstasy and hallucinogenics. [But] now heroin is regarded as adventurous."
Fried points to the explosion of clubs in Hollywood, where the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency has spent billions of dollars to clean up the area.
City officials such as Councilman Eric Garcetti and Los Angeles Police Department brass have pointed to success in moving out many drug dealers who once openly hawked everything from heroin to pills on Hollywood Boulevard.
But now, inside the glitzy clubs, Fried says, heroin is widely available, and "once they've been initiated, it's romanticized and glorified. ... They think if they smoke it they won't O.D. But they can."
Two of the most publicized accidental heroin overdose deaths involved celebrity names, and both were young men. In August 2009 Andre Young Jr., the 20-year-old son of Dr. Dre, died at his mother's Los Angeles home from taking a mix of heroin and morphine.
In February 2008, troubled child star Brad Renfro died at age 25 in his L.A. apartment while he was still on probation from a dramatic Skid Row police sting in which he and others bought dummy heroin balloons from undercover LAPD officers.
Fried has a warning for partying young people: "We go through waves, and sometimes it's more potent. For newer users, in the first six months of use, the potential to O.D. is huge. I've seen this, periods where that is what I believe is happening right now."
She also sees an economic factor behind the heroin scene unfolding in trendy clubs: Dealing it "is quick, easy money — they then sell to each other once they have a source." The bottom line, Fried says, is that this could be a summer overshadowed by heroin overdoses among young, nonaddict Angelenos.
A recent memorial for the descendant of chief Waiyaiki drew such a crowd to a Baldwin Hills home that the gathering — mixing rocker-clad friends and members of a Kenyan émigré Christian church — was moved out into the yard.
Joseph Njoroge, Kaki's father, a college professor and pastor, spoke of the pain of losing a son, and of being touched by the outpouring of support. Then, on an early morning flight, he took his son back to Georgia to be buried.
"We sang tribal Kenyan songs, and the only downside is my cheeks hurt from smiling so much," says Starr Njoroge.
Yet she fears that the breadth of the Los Angeles megalopolis will dilute this tragedy. "I hope others can learn from this," she says, "learn how precious your life is."
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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