Santa Cruz tourism has been shooting up — literally. People flock to the city by the sea for its natural beauty, epic surf spots, and as of this past year, cheap black tar heroin.
Last Thursday, three Santa Cruz transients were arrested in the Pogonip Greenbelt in the latest of a string of narcotics-related incidents. One of the men was in possession of 10 grams of heroin — a drug whose prevalence has inspired the local moniker Heroin Hill.
Chief park ranger John Wallace described the location of the hill— a 50-acre stretch of land bound by Highway 9 to the east side of the greenbelt — and the drug activity rangers occasionally witness in this area.
“If you follow the railroad tracks at the end of Vernon Street and head west, there is a hill called Heroin Hill and the drug dealers go up there and sell their black [tar] heroin,” Wallace said. “We don’t really run into that particular type of drug except in that one area.”
Zack Friend, spokesman for the Santa Cruz Police Department, said that within the last year, Heroin Hill has become a regionally known heroin hotspot. Its reputation attracts people from as far as Richmond and Sacramento.
Friend added that regulating the area poses unique challenges to law enforcement.
“Because of its physical location, it is a difficult area for police officers and rangers to patrol,” Friend said. “There are trails that appear to be official walking trails that are actually drug-running trails.”
He explained that police officers and park rangers work closely together to eradicate as much drug activity as possible, keeping in mind that enforcement in one area may only cause traffickers to retreat farther into the forest.
“Success in one area can lead to failure in another,” Friend said. “The more we do in the open area of Pogonip, the more it gets pushed into the forested area of Pogonip up Highway 9.”
A park-goer who has visited Pogonip for 20 years explained that while he never witnessed any drug activity firsthand, certain areas are known for their seediness.
“I’ll come down the railroad tracks on my mountain bike and there is definitely a skeevier sort of energy,” said the cyclist, who asked to remain anonymous. “It’s where desperate people would go to live, or hang out, or freak out.”
Last September, the fire marshal closed Heroin Hill to the public due to potential fire dangers related to drug cooking and consumption.
However, chief ranger Wallace thinks that establishing more community activities in the park is bound to promote a safe environment.
“If you look at all of the drug sites, there aren’t too many people that go into those areas,” Wallace said. “The more we draw the public in, [the more we] actually drive the bad people out.”
There are already several trails near the border of Pogonip, including the U-Con connector and Rincon trails that allow mountain bikers to travel from Henry Cowell State Park to UC Santa Cruz.
Jeff Arnett, UCSC writing professor and a Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz member, noted the importance of bringing mountain bikers to more secluded locations in the park.
“[People need to] make sure the mountain bikers are in the loop. They’re your eyes out there,” Arnett said. “The more presence there, the better to avoid drug pushing.”
Arnett — a Pogonip enthusiast for over 20 years — was a primary contributor to the book “The Unnatural History of UC Santa Cruz,” which highlights various man-made landmarks on the UCSC campus. He is discontented with the current situation in the previously peaceful park.
“Pogonip is a fascinating place,” Arnett said. “It’s ironic, because here’s this beautiful park and people are using it for something like this.”
Wallace said some plans that have been proposed include the construction of bike trails, the addition of cattle, and a homeless garden project to encourage community members to visit and help pull the park out of its narcotic-induced slump.
“It is hard to solve a social problem when you are talking about drugs,” Wallace said. “We’ve got to come up with creative ideas that are going to benefit the public and cause the bad element to go away.”