Part 1, Heroin Wars: The war on heroin is a national priority – what it means for Loudoun

Part 1, Heroin Wars: The war on heroin is a national priority – what it means for Loudoun

Nick Yacoub recalls in great detail the moment that changed his life – 10 p.m., a Wednesday, the eve of Thanksgiving 2007. A set of flashing lights leading to a second arrest in as many years, and ultimately jail time in the Loudoun County Adult Detention Center (ADC).

“Being arrested saved my life,” said Yacoub, who now strives to help others turn their lives around as a Regional Supervisor for the Substance Abuse and Addiction Recovery Alliance (SAARA), based in Richmond, Va.

Yacoub was a drug and alcohol abuser who first experimented at age 10. It started with marijuana, and over time he migrated to prescription narcotics and eventually discovered heroin. That put Yacoub in a category that has become a national epidemic – the resurgence of heroin users and the damage and deaths related to it.

This is the story of one man’s journey, and the first of a three part series on heroin use and abuse in Loudoun County and beyond – how it happens, why it’s a growing problem, and what’s being done about it.

Yacoub’s transition, beginning with prescription drugs in the home, is common for heroin users. According to, four out of five users first began with recreational use of prescription pain relievers. Eventually, either prescription drugs run out, become hard to find or the user simply craves a stronger “high.” Law enforcement officials agree that heroin, increasingly, provides that high.

At age 19, Yacoub started supplementing his growing drug habit by selling heroin, and was later arrested for distribution of illegal narcotics. While he didn’t serve jail time, he was put on probation and attempted his first “recovery” on his own.

“The first time I tried to get clean it was at my parents’ house, alone,” he said. “All I used was two trash cans, a bed and a carton of cigarettes.” At that point he thought he had things under control, but he was wrong.

“It’s common for people who have used drugs, gone to jail and gotten clean, to then jump right back to using when they get out,” said Tom Carr, executive director of the Washington/Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program.

HIDTA is a federal program that works with government agencies and departments to disrupt the market for illegal drugs by attacking drug trafficking. As he fought off his heroin addiction, Yacoub found himself turning to alcohol. His arrest in 2007 resulted in a year in jail, and it was there his actual recovery began.

“’It doesn’t have to be this way,’” he recalls one inmate telling him. “I am who I am today because someone from the recovery community reached out to me and said I could turn my life around.”

Once again, Yacoub self-detoxed, but this time while at the ADC, not realizing that coming off of heroin and alcohol cold turkey could have killed him.

“I was vomiting blood, having auditory hallucinations, and shaking like a leaf on a tree.” Yacoub said. But ultimately, with the help of counselors and deputies at the ADC, he got through it.

Sudden alcohol cessation can cause hallucinations, convulsions and even heart failure, symptoms not unlike those associated with withdrawal from heroin, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Now, at SAARA, Yacoub works with young men and women in recovery, and with their families. He’s part of an organization that mentors and provides financial services to participants, and conducts educational and related community-based programs.

The early warning signs of Yacoub’s slide into addiction as a teenager were not completely apparent. “The clues are not always obvious,” according to Richard Fiano, Commander of the Criminal Investigations Division for the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office and a 34-year veteran of the DEA.

“Warning signs include the person becoming more withdrawn and anti-social,” he said. “Then there’s strange behavior like wearing a sweater in the middle of winter, and more.”

The recovery community is large and growing. According to a 2012 survey by The New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS), 10 percent of all American adults aged 18 and older consider themselves to be in recovery from drugs or alcohol. A natural survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that 20 percent of people in recovery are seeking help from a heroin or opiate addiction. For those who do seek help, the road to recovery can be difficult, especially those with heroin addiction.

“It is a disease of isolation.” Yacoub said. “You don’t want to be around anyone, and you try to hide. To recover you need to surround yourself with a supportive community.”

For those who are stay clean, other challenges await, such as stigmas and misconceptions about those in recovery.

“I’m a person in long-term recovery.” Yacoub said. “When someone hears the word ‘addict,’ they think you’re still using and it shuts down all conversation.”

Yacoub advises people in recovery to return to hobbies and activities they enjoyed before the addiction started, or perhaps help other addicts recover.

After all the physical and mental pain, legal problems and time served, Yacoub is enjoying life again.

“Getting arrested saved my life,” he said. “Recovery is what made it a life worth living.”

Yacoub is one of the lucky ones. In 2014, the National Institutes on Drug Abuse found that 25 percent of people who get off heroin or opiates relapse within 15 years.

Overdoses and deaths from heroin use continue to rise nationwide, even in Loudoun County where the Sheriff’s office has already reported 37 total heroin overdoses in 2016. That compares with 31 for all of 2014, and 35 last year.

The numbers are up for reasons that have nothing to do with Loudoun County. It’s a national epidemic, and there’s a new cocktail that’s taking the credit – synthetic heroin. Cheaper, more accessible, and typically with a more unpredictable and extreme “high”, synthetic heroin is a killer.

Nick Yacoub’s story is still a work in progress. He’s a survivor. Others in Loudoun County have not been so fortunate, and some stories have ended in death.

Part 1 – The battles start early. Sterling man’s stint in jail gets him on path to recovery, helping others.

Part 2 – The heroin highway. Synthetic heroin, how it gets into Loudoun County and what’s being done to stop it.

Part 3 – Long term solutions. Why law enforcement alone is not the fix.