Juveniles to be tested for drugs Spread of heroin sparks initiative to gather information

Drug Early Warning System

Arrested youths will be tested on a voluntary basis

June 10, 1998|By Todd Richissin DTC | Todd Richissin DTC,SUN STAFF

In its most comprehensive move yet to squash spiking heroin use in Maryland's suburbs and rural areas, the state plans for the first time to test arrested juveniles to see if they are on drugs.

The plan, expected to be announced this evening by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, is the latest effort to contain a problem that recently has spread far beyond its historical roots, the inner-city neighborhoods of Baltimore.

More people in virtually every part of Maryland are overdosing on heroin -- and at a younger age -- than ever before, according to data from law enforcement and health care workers.

The new state program is dubbed DEWS, an acronym for Drug Early Warning System. The goal is to get better information on heroin-use trends sooner.

Addiction experts say it's needed because data gathered using current methods are often old by the time they are obtained and disseminated.

"If we can prevent deaths because we know the trends, we should do it," Townsend said in an interview yesterday. "I think this is a much more comprehensive approach to drugs than we've ever taken before."

The cornerstone of the DEWS program will be the juvenile drug testing, to be administered twice a year in Baltimore, Carroll, Cecil and Harford counties. Evidence of increased drug use first shows up in jails and intake centers, officials say.

While the tests will be voluntary, similar programs elsewhere have received cooperation from about 80 percent of arrestees, officials say. Arrestees who agree to the tests could be released from custody more quickly than those who refuse.

"The reason it's so important is that, basically, there is no system of monitoring drug use right now," said Dr. Eric Wish, who will administer the program with the Center for Substance Abuse Research at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"We'll now have information almost as it's happening, and we can get that information out at the state, county and community levels, to the people who are supposed to respond," Wish said.

Use is widespread

The initiative is coming on the heels of a study by the research center that offers evidence that heroin use in Baltimore is becoming more prevalent.

The study showed that in 1995, the percentage of arrestees who tested positive for heroin was higher in Baltimore than in any other city in the country since the national Drug Use Forecasting Program began testing arrestees in 1987.

"That is an enormously significant statistic," Wish said. "Aside from its other implications, it tells us why DEWS is needed."

In addition to the testing of juveniles, the new program calls for:

"Rapid Response" units, teams of health care workers deployed to areas showing increased drug use.

A survey of 125 "front-line" professionals, such as state and local police and health care workers, to be conducted twice a year in all of the state's 24 jurisdictions.

A Web site at the University of Maryland, College Park, which will seek and provide information about drug use by students.

A centralized collection of data from law enforcement, education, corrections and public health agencies and households to provide a historical context for the state's drug trends.

Details of the program are to be announced by Townsend at 6 p.m. at the Westminster Senior Center. The location of the announcement, in Carroll County, is no accident.

The county, once all but immune to the drug problems plaguing metropolitan areas, has had three heroin overdose deaths this year -- all among young people -- compared with none as recently as 1996. In the past three years, the number of heroin users in treatment has more than doubled in Carroll and Harford counties and increased by more than 40 percent in Anne Arundel and Howard counties.

Since 1990, the number of deaths in Maryland from heroin overdoses has more than doubled, with the most dramatic increases occurring outside Baltimore -- long home of one of the most serious heroin problems in the country.

More powerful heroin

Law enforcement officers and health workers attribute the increased use to a new, more powerful brand of heroin. Because the new heroin is so pure, users can snort it rather than inject it. Not having to use needles removes the stigma that once kept many people away from the drug.

Lt. Terry Katz, an intelligence officer with the Maryland State Police, said the new program will help law enforcement officials as well as health workers.

"The chief benefit is there will be some additional positions in the treatment part of things. That's important because you can't arrest your way out of this problem," he said. "On the other side, it allows the commanders to target certain areas that we're going to know are becoming hot spots, hopefully earlier than we knew before."

Pub Date: 6/10/98

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