Heroin use spreading from area's urban core to suburbs, experts say Alleged overdose of drug by Howard Co. teacher no surprise to officials

January 25, 1998|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

The apparent heroin overdose in an elementary school bathroom of a respected teacher stunned a community unaccustomed to drug problems associated with cities.

But experts and officials aren't surprised by a recent incident involving Laurel Woods elementary teacher Garrett M. Bradley, 28. They say a new surge in heroin abuse is sweeping from inner cities to suburban areas such as Howard County, crossing social, economic, racial and gender lines.

"A year ago, we sent out officers to try to buy heroin, but they couldn't find any," said Lt. Tim Branning, who heads Howard County police's narcotics and vice division. "Now, a year later, we're buying the drug. It's in every part of the county."

Experts and police say heroin use is spreading quickly for a number of reasons, including its easy availability, relatively low price, vogue status and high purity, which allows users to inhale the narcotic instead of injecting it.

Bradley was found unconscious in the North Laurel school Jan. 14, with injection paraphernalia and a substance police believed to be heroin nearby, school officials disclosed last week.

In Howard County, 211 heroin abusers sought assistance in 1996, up from 139 two years earlier, according to state figures.

Statewide, the estimated number of heroin abusers has jumped about 30 percent since 1992, from 42,800 to 56,000 addicts.

At Howard County General Hospital, there has been a large increase in the number of people -- mothers and fathers, professionals and laborers -- entering the emergency room with the heroin addict's pale, exhausted face. "You grab a chart and think you're going to find a 20-something high school dropout," Dr. Michael Perline said. "Then you enter the room and see a well-dressed, white-collar 35- to 40-year-old."

After prescribing drugs to relieve the main symptoms of withdrawal -- which include fevers, cramps and violent shaking and vomiting -- Perline refers addicts to counselors.

Hype and purity

Most experts and police attribute heroin's appeal to Hollywood hype and the sharp increase in its purity.

Unlike the users of the 1960s, who obtained heroin that was roughly 4 percent to 10 percent pure -- a level that required burning the drug and then injecting it directly into the blood -- today's addicts are buying heroin of 40 percent to 70 percent purity, which makes the drug much easier to consume.

"It's riskier using needles and poking yourself full of holes," said Michael M. Gimbel, director of Baltimore County's Bureau of Substance Abuse. "It's socially acceptable now. It's become a party drug "

In Baltimore County, heroin abusers accounted for 14 percent of the 1,400 admissions to county-sponsored drug-treatment programs last year, an increase of 550 percent since 1992, Gimbel said.

According to federal statistics, 2.4 million Americans have used heroin, and about 216,000 use it monthly.

Police say about 30 percent of Howard County addicts usually get their drugs from Baltimore and then distribute the heroin to other addicts in the county.

In Baltimore, police have arrested numerous suburbanites trying to buy heroin for themselves and to deal, said Robert W. Weinhold Jr., spokesman for the city police.

To boost its appeal, police say, dealers are offering cheap or free samples of heroin, which is one of the most physically addicting drugs.

"You tend to use more and more of heroin to get your high," said Joyce Brown Weddington, Howard County's substance-abuse impact coordinator. "That can lead to overdoses. You build up a tolerance."

State police say heroin has spread from Baltimore and Baltimore County into even the most rural communities.

Going undercover

In November, state police arrested seven people in Carroll County linked to a heroin ring that was supplying nearly 100 high school students. "We're even seeing it on the Eastern Shore now, in Princess Anne," said Maj. Standford Franklin, a regional commander for the state police bureau of drug enforcement. "It's rearing its ugly head everywhere."

To fight the loose ring of dealers invading Howard County, police are going undercover and gathering evidence for arrests and raids. Last year, out of 268 drug arrests, two people were arrested for heroin dealing, said Branning.

The Laurel Woods teacher's case points to the burgeoning use of heroin among young professionals, but the drug is also spreading among youths.

A Baltimore girl who was arrested last week on charges of stealing jeans at The Mall in Columbia told officers she needed to steal 10 pairs to support her habit, police said.

At the Mountain Manor Treatment Center in Baltimore, 10 to 15 of the 52 juveniles there are being treated for heroin addiction, more than twice the figure of five years ago, said Ken Weinberg, coordinator of the center's adolescent and outpatient programs.

"The kids know their peers are using it," said Weinberg. "Heroin is so addicting. It's so hard to tell a kid that's sick, can't sleep, throwing up and vomiting to give treatment just one more day."

Pub Date: 1/25/98

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