Mention heroin to most people and it conjures images of gaunt junkies shooting up with dirty needles in bombed-out inner-city buildings.

These days, however, the drug is coming to a high school or suburb near you.

Authorities say heroin has caught on in popularity with high school- and college-age kids in recent years. The powerfully addictive drug is still an urban menace, but it also is turning up in middle-class, suburban neighborhoods in places like Mount Pleasant, West Ashley and James Island, area police said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Phillips, who prosecutes federal drug cases in Charleston, said he routinely hears from area police officers and agents confronted with heroin use and overdoses among young people.

"It seems like everyone is seeing more and more of it," he said. "Anecdotally, it seems to be on the rise."

Nationally, heroin abuse has reportedly decreased during the past several years, but its prevalence is still higher than in the early 1990s, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. A 2003 survey found that some 3.7 million people had used heroin at some point in their lives, the institute reported.

Mount Pleasant Police Capt. Stan Gragg said the amount of heroin in the community doesn't seem to have increased much, but its popularity with young people has.

"It's making a resurgence with young kids in their late teens to early 20s," he said. "I wouldn't say its commonplace, but it's not scarce either. If kids want it, they seem to know where to get it."

Brian Hardison was stunned when he was called to East Cooper Medical Center after his son Evan overdosed on heroin in October 2007. It was apparently the first time Evan had tried the drug. Evan died the following month from complications of "acute opiate toxicity."

"I couldn't believe my son did heroin, or that my son would even try heroin, because he wasn't that kind of person," he said. "I don't know how more shocked I could have been."

Charleston County Coroner Rae Wooten said her office has dealt with five fatal heroin overdoses in the past six months, an unusually high number. That number could still rise when lab results from pending cases come in.

The victims range in age from their 20s to age 47, showing no clear pattern, she said.

Heroin is processed from morphine, a naturally occurring substance extracted from certain varieties of poppy plants. It is typically sold as a white or brownish powder or as a black, sticky substance known on the streets as "black tar heroin," according to the drug abuse institute.

It is often "cut" with sugar, powdered milk or other substances to dilute the strength and stretch the quantity.

Charleston Police Lt. Sterling Dutton, a narcotics unit supervisor, said he has even seen heroin cut with arsenic and other poisons. "Users never know what they're going to get."

Gragg said some young people have the mistaken belief that heroin is not as powerful or addictive as crack cocaine. Often, peer pressure plays a role in their decision to give it a try, he said.

"Heroin is an old drug, but it seems new and powerful to them," Dutton said. "It's very nasty stuff. Heroin and crystal meth are probably the two worst drugs in terms of addictiveness."