An Atlantic County narcotics investigator told a state commission investigating the rise in drug use among teenagers that he has seen many high school students progress from getting drugs from their parents to buying heroin on the streets.

“We have kids who are getting it from their own parents, from friends at school,” Detective Sgt. James N. Scoppa Jr. told the State Commission of Investigation during a hearing Wednesday in Trenton. “As early as junior high.”

The commission’s hearing focused on what experts say is an alarming trend of teenagers moving from prescription-drug use to illegal narcotics.

Scoppa said he’s seen examples of students at some of South Jersey’s best-known high schools using painkillers such as Percocet and Oxycontin — pills they found at home in medicine cabinets.

In Atlantic County, Scoppa said, buyers flock to the region to shop for drugs. Where police in other towns saw buyers drive out of town to buy narcotics, Scoppa said Atlantic County police saw buyers come in from Cape May and Ocean counties.

At the same time, the drug trade has changed, too, since 2003: Heroin that once came predominantly from Philadelphia increasingly was being trafficked from North Jersey. As a result, users and law enforcement officials have watched prices for certain drugs drop quickly.

While prescription pill prices have not changed, Scoppa said the price of a brick of heroin — 10 bags — had dropped from an average of $150 in 2003 to about $60 today.

Meanwhile, a bag of heroin has dropped in street price to about $5 or $10 today.

Legal pain-management centers were also increasingly a source for young people.

“Some of them decide they’ll make as much money as possible,” Scoppa said. “They’re no different than a street dealer.”

Patrick Hobbs, the newly appointed chair of the State Commission of Investigation, said the SCI plans to push for further investigation of drug-trade patterns, especially how they were allowing young users to shift from pills to heroin. The investigation has so far taken eight months.

Economic factors are driving that trend, gang experts and drug investigators said at the hearing in Trenton. When those sources dry up, students were finding no shortage of places to get prescriptions.

“We have a big problem with dirty doctors,” Scoppa told the hearing. “Some of them knowingly give out prescriptions knowing that the individual doesn’t really have an injury.”

When experimenting users graduate from taking an $80 painkiller pill to seeking $10 hits of heroin, investigators warn, the difference in price coupled with a loss of social stigma about drug use helps them to switch.

Detective Sgt. Brian Jernick, who heads narcotics investigations in Vernon Township, Sussex County, said he was accustomed to watching users who were one or two years out of high school making “daily runs” to buy heroin. With as many as one in five teenagers experimenting with pills, according to investigators’ estimates, the town has seen nine recent deaths caused by overdoses of heroin and prescription narcotics.

As the nation heads into its fourth decade in the War on Drugs, Hobbs capped eight months of initial investigation by saying drug use patterns may have changed across New Jersey but were a “continuing scourge.”

Through firsthand accounts told at the hearing, young former drug users and veteran law enforcement officers described how prescription medications had become gateway drugs for users who might end up addicted to heroin or other opiates.

“Prescription pill users who can no longer afford or obtain their prescription medication will turn to heroin as a last resort,” said SCI investigator Edwin Torres.

Over a video link, a 21-year-old man from South Jersey described to the commission how he progressed from thinking heroin was “disgusting” to using several bags a day over a matter of months.

Speaking from a drug treatment center with his face blurred, he said his first addiction was to pills.

“At first I was going through family members, family members who were addicted,” he said. “Then gradually I started to sell the pills.”

Because of the accessibility of those drugs, Scoppa described cases where kids in high schools were not only buying pills but learning to mix them.

A second confidential witness, a young woman from South Jersey, testified by video link that she would meet her friends in a school bathroom to take Oxycontin, followed by Xanax.

“I was with my friends one day and they had heroin. They were all doing it,” she went on.

Age 15 at the time, she initially learned to snort heroin the way she had snorted crushed-up pills.

“I preferred heroin just because you needed less of it to get higher, and it was less expensive as well,” she said.

She had been spending $50 to $100 a day on pills but moved to a $15-a-day heroin habit.

Contact Juliet Fletcher:

609-292-4935