WASHINGTON — Federal and state officials are stepping up efforts to block the spread of an emerging drug menace called cheese heroin, which has been blamed for the deaths of at least 20 young people in the Dallas-Fort Worth area over the past two years.
The drug, a mixture of black tar heroin and cold medicine, sells for as little as $2 a hit and is being targeted at kids, often as an inducement to join a gang.
Thus far, the drug is largely confined to Dallas and its suburbs. But Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and other officials warn that, with its low price and easy marketability by drug dealers, deadly cheese heroin could spread into other communities.
"We're still seeing the highest concentration in the Dallas area, but last year we started to see a spread to outlying cities," said Jeremy Liebbe, a police officer with the Dallas Independent School District who's investigated nearly 250 cheese heroin cases. "What that tells us is that it isn't a problem that's going to go away anytime soon."
Cornyn sponsored an amendment to pending Senate anti-gang legislation that would add cheese heroin to the list of targeted drugs in a youth-oriented media campaign sponsored by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. The amendment would authorize educational and advertising programs to alert young people in targeted communities to the danger of cheese heroin.
So named because it resembles Parmesan cheese, the drug has been pushed heavily among Hispanic youths since it was first detected in Dallas schools in 2005. Arrests for possession of cheese heroin during the 2006-07 school year increased 60 percent over the previous year, Cornyn said, and drug treatment centers say that "cheese" addicts are as numerous as those seeking help for marijuana addiction.
Steve Robertson, a national spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration, said DEA officials had been tracking the drug since it first appeared and had seen no evidence that it had spread beyond north Texas.
But because it can be produced easily from lower-grade heroin and over-the-counter cold medication, DEA agents consider the drug a threat and are working with state and local officials to keep it from spreading, Robertson said.
"It's pretty much staying in the Dallas area, but, as you can tell from how it's made, any knucklehead can make this stuff," Robertson said. "The DEA is very aware of the threat posed by cheese."
Another federal agency — the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a branch of the Department of Health and Human Services — has begun a nationwide monitoring program in order to be poised for the outbreak of cheese heroin in other parts of the country, said Robert Lubran, the director of the agency's pharmacologic therapies division.
"We're keeping an eye on it," Lubran said. "I would say that we're concerned about any local outbreak . . . that has the potential to become a problem elsewhere. There is a tendency for drug patterns to ebb and flow."
The Dallas Police Department describes cheese as "the new face of heroin," saying it's deceptively addictive and responsible for a rash of overdose deaths among teenagers in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Often known simply as cheese, the drug is often about 8 percent heroin mixed with water and over-the-counter pain reliever. Yellowish or tan-colored, the drug is typically sold in small paper packages or zip-top plastic bags and snorted with a tube, straw or ballpoint pen.
Cheese has been identified in more than a dozen Dallas schools and surrounding suburbs. Cornyn said that young cheese users in a Dallas treatment center told him "they would actually be snorting this stuff in the classroom while the teacher was in front of the class."