PHOENIX (KSAZ) - A heroin epidemic is sweeping the nation, and in Arizona the cartels are pumping low-cost heroin across the border to meet the growing demand. Heroin users in Arizona say getting their fix has never been easier, and the drug is draining the criminal justice system.
"There was no other option, it was either keep using or die," said John Hansen.
Step-by-step, Hansen is trying to save his life, he recalled the first time he got high using heroin.
"18-years-old I was driving down the west side of Chicago, I fell in love right away with it, right away as soon as I did it," said Hansen.
His love affair with heroin started a decade ago. He now has scars from where he injected the drug all over his body. He says he's overdosed over nine times.
"They had to resuscitate me; I was dead," he said.
Now Hansen is living at the Phoenix Rescue Mission's shelter, trying to get clean yet again. Hansen says his faith is keeping him sober; he's now gone 90 days without heroin.
"All those feelings of trying to fit in, the reason I used in the first place was feeling rejected, I think that's what a lot of people love about it, it's an escape," said Hansen.
According to the CDC heroin use across the country from 2002 to 2013 is up 90%. The Phoenix Rescue Mission's President, Jay Cory, says the fastest growing population here is heroin users.
"It's a ready supply, it's accessible on the streets, and it is dangerous," said Jay Cory.
Hansen's addiction is interlaced with crime. He went from prison in Illinois to rehab in Arizona, and then he relapsed. In 2014, police arrested him again for theft and drug possession.
"It's a savage way of living and thinking, all that matters is the next high, whatever you got to, no matter who you have to steal from, you're going to do it to support your habit," said Hansen.
The tide of heroin addiction often lands in county court rooms where addicts learn whether they'll go to prison, or whether they'll get probation with treatment.
"No one has a handle on heroin abuse, or even use at this point," said Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery.
According to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, prosecutions for heroin-related crimes are up five-fold in the last eight years, and in Arizona the cartels are feeding the growing demand.
"It's an ongoing fact that the Sinaloa cartel is using Maricopa County as its distribution hub for its heroin operations in the United States," said Montgomery.
Montgomery says while his goal is to be tough on traffickers, his office tries to emphasize treatment for the addict. The strategy is in line with a 1996 law requiring treatment with probation for a first and second time non-violent drug offenders.
"The argument or discussion over whether we can arrest our way out of this problem fell by the wayside a long time ago," he said.
Still many who end up in prison are addicts. According to the AZ DOC, 77% of inmates released in the last year need substance abuse treatment. Hansen is one of the drug offenders who is getting help.
"They looked at my record, and there is no way I should have gotten probation, I should have gone to prison," said Hansen.
At the mission's long-term recovery program, Hansen is getting vocational training. The program is in such high demand that the shelter has added 80 more beds.
"Basically to incarcerate sick people is not the solution, but to help sick people become well," said Cory.
Still Hansen knows his old life is only a few minutes away. How fast could he get his hands on heroin? "Five, maybe ten minutes," said Hansen.
How hard is it knowing he's only minutes away from his next high.
"Once you make that decision, every day gets better," said Hansen.
And though he may go to prison if he's ever caught with heroin again, Hansen still can't say he's dumped the drug for good.
"I'd like to tell you never again," he said.
For Hansen, there's the scars that won't go away anytime soon, the ones that are skin deep, and the ones that are inside.
For the first time, Hansen says he feels those are starting to heal.
If you need help with battling addiction visit: