Drug fight in Carroll criticized 'Heroin Kills' signs thought to tarnish county's reputation

September 13, 1998|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

One of the first images that motorists see when they enter Carroll County is a sign with a pair of feet and a toe tag that warns "Heroin Kills" -- not great publicity for a county trying to promote itself as a tourist destination.

The logo is plastered everywhere, a visible scar left by the death of a high school sophomore who overdosed in January. What started as a grass-roots campaign has grown to include highway billboards, 500 window signs, 4,000 bumper stickers and 30,000 magnets. The signs can be seen in storefronts, along quaint streets and on county cars -- including the one driven by Carroll's tourism director.

To many, the eerie black-and-white signs show that Carroll is a community that cares, a place where problems such as drug addiction are tackled head-on. But others worry the campaign may be tarnishing this rapidly growing county of 150,000, exaggerating Carroll's heroin problem. Some critics question its effectiveness.

"I think it's wonderful that the community cares enough to stand behind this campaign, but does every shop need to have a 'Heroin Kills' sign?" asked Australia's tourism director, Joy Walker, during a recent tour of Carroll's county seat.

"It seems to me that they've gone a bit overboard," Walker said. "All these signs make it appear as though Westminster is some kind of drug capital."

Indeed, the signs have prompted visitors to wonder aloud about the extent of the drug problem in Carroll. Local merchants say outsiders often ask about the anti-heroin campaign.

"They want to know whether [heroin use] is a big problem here," said Christina Mawhinney, owner of Chef's Kitchen on Westminster's Main Street. "The parents of Western Maryland College students seem to be the ones most concerned."

Dan and Susan Joyce of Crofton, who have two daughters attending the college, said the signs prompted them to have a frank discussion about drug use with their children -- Meghan, 21, and Christine, 18.

"The signs made me realize that the problem is everywhere, not just in big cities," said Dan Joyce. "But I must admit, I thought it was strange to see these signs only in Carroll. I mean, Baltimore has a bigger problem, doesn't it?"

Though the number of heroin users in treatment in Carroll has more than doubled over the past three years, Baltimore's drug problem far outweighs Carroll's.

What has police and health workers in Carroll concerned is not the number of arrests and overdoses that have occurred in the county. Rather, they are concerned that heroin appeared in the suburbs at all.

And they are not alone.

Drug problem all over

This year, parents in Howard County were furious when a kindergarten teacher overdosed in a school bathroom. In Harford County, six young men have died of heroin overdoses since November, prompting parents to start an anti-heroin campaign of their own -- modeled loosely on Carroll's.

Two billboards were erected in Harford last week to call attention to the spread of heroin there.

But in Baltimore, home to about 60,000 drug addicts, not a single sign will be erected.

"It's a different kind of epidemic in Baltimore," said Dr. Peter Beilen-sen, the city's health commissioner. "We have older, more stable users. I don't think a billboard campaign would reach them. Most are functionally illiterate.

"More importantly, there's no proof that the billboards are even working in Carroll County. Personally, I'd much rather see resources devoted to treatment on demand."

One of the most vocal critics of the "Heroin Kills" campaign has been Carroll County Sheriff John H. Brown, who for the past year has shifted his department's resources from drug enforcement to courthouse security.

"To me, it's a waste of money," Brown said. "Instead of spending the money on signs, use it to fight drugs to strictly prosecute drug dealers and users. I've said it for years, drug use is a $H cancer. Until you take the proper tools and cut it out, you won't stop it."

Organizers of the anti-heroin campaign are quick to point out that the county has taken an aggressive approach to the problem -- prosecuting drug offenders to the fullest extent of the law. But, they say, such efforts are not enough.

"When you have a drug that is killing people, awareness is the first step that must be taken to curb the problem," said Carroll County State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes. "You don't want one more person to die."

Drawing attention

But critics of the "Heroin Kills" campaign say the signs, though well-intentioned, may backfire -- drawing sensation seekers to the drug.

"Heroin is a funny drug to target. Only a very small percentage of the population uses the drug," said Peter Reuter, a drug policy expert and professor in the department of criminology at the University of Maryland, College Park. "And though there hasn't been much evaluation of mass media campaigns, one thing is clear: You don't want to use them to call attention to rare behavior because it inspires curiosity, especially among young people."

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