The county line is not a wall against drug use


November 16, 1997|By Mike Burns

THE well-publicized arrests of suspected heroin distributors in Carroll County this month should come as no surprise to those who have been paying attention.

The wonder is that it came so late, which is not a knock on the law enforcement teams that made the sweep.

But the warning signs have been out there for a long time. Maryland's biennial school drug survey, a keen indicator of teen-age substance abuse, has been pointing out a surprising use of heroin among minors in Carroll.

Last year's survey found that Carroll high school seniors and sophomores were twice as likely to have used that drug as the average student in the statewide study. The survey reported 4.4 percent of Carroll 12th graders said they used heroin, compared to a national average of .5 percent.

Pipeline to 100 teens

The seven suspects charged by police are said to be supplying about 100 Carroll teen-agers. That's not the end of it, by any means. To the contrary, authorities say they are getting more tips about local drug dealing as a result of the high-profile operation.

"The response from parents is providing us with information on drug use that we normally wouldn't have," county State's Attorney Jerry Barnes said.

More and more, it is becoming clear that hard drug use is a problem in the suburbs that won't go away. And, as these things go in cycles, heroin is becoming a major problem again, after once being scorned as a loser's poison confined to the city ghettos.

It's not something that most parents considered a potential problem. Those aware enough to do anything about drugs focused on marijuana and cocaine. It's called "generational forgetting" of heroin's toll in past decades.

Shirley Andrews of Westminster, whose son died last year of a heroin overdose at age 16, says the severity of his addiction was hidden for months. "I am a school nurse, so you think that I would know, but I didn't," she told a news conference at the Maryland State Police barracks after the arrests. "Parents need to be aware of what's out there. It is in the schools and in the community."

The Carroll heroin busts exposed a familiar pattern of ripples in the suburban drug business. The arrested suspects were said to be arranging to pick up heroin in Baltimore County from a supplier in Baltimore City.

Police said the drugs were destined for students at Westminster and North Carroll high schools. But no one thinks this problem stops east of Route 27. Even though this heroin connection was "crushed," as Mr. Barnes put it, he knows there's always another one out there.

One reason that heroin is finding new favor with teens, experts say, is the prevalent myth that you can't become addicted if you snort it instead of injecting it. You can quit anytime you want. But few do, and the typical pattern is to move to injections in the search for a stronger high. They're hooked, just an OD away from the morgue.

Another factor in the recent rise of heroin abuse among adolescents is that the drug is getting cheaper. The purity (potency) of a packet sold on the street is much higher than several years ago.

Not that drug abuse and drug awareness aren't talked about. They get lots of emphasis in school and youth programs, and in TV ads. A lot of the anti-drug material comes home for parents. And yet the temptation remains and some children will continue to succumb to its fatal allure. The challenge for parents and anyone dealing with young people is to recognize the early symptoms. That means actually reading about drug abuse and using that information in caring for a child's welfare.

Even if symptoms may be difficult to pinpoint, altered behavior patterns and the kinds of companions a child chooses may help to tip off alert parents to possible drug abuse. Oh yes, parents also have to talk to their children about drugs. Straight up. No birds-and-bees evasions.

"It's a tough topic to talk about, and you have to do it," advised addictions counselor Olivia Myers, admitting that "I think parents are scared to death."

Rise in 'gateway drugs'

Joanne Hayes, coordinator of drug abuse prevention in county schools, sees the high levels of cigarette smoking and binge drinking among teen-agers as a warning signal for future hard drug abuse. Despite extensive education on the health dangers of smoking and alcohol abuse, many students are ignoring it. The illegal use of these "gateway drugs" by minors indicates a tendency for risk-taking, and trying more dangerous drugs.

Part of that problem is that many parents and other adults seem to condone such obvious abuse, or ignore it. They don't take it seriously, silently encouraging use of more harmful substances by youngsters.

Toward that end, Taneytown is weighing a measure to issue tickets to minors caught smoking, enforcing a state law that is rarely enforced. The City Council is divided, but still studying the idea.

There's no single solution to the scourge of substance abuse. But greater awareness, at home and elsewhere, can help to save young lives.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 11/16/97

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