Stark billboards drive home danger of drugs


October 25, 1998|By Mike Burns

WHILE SOME may prefer to imagine hidden, or invisible, messages of anti-drug billboards in Carroll, the obvious message to everyone else is brutally clear: "Heroin kills."

Not just inside the county line, but everywhere. The lethal problem of drug abuse is not going away. It is on the rise. Any highway reminder of the threat may help someone to take the right step, to prevent another life lost to drugs.

No catchy rhyme or cute graphic is needed. Just the bare feet of a corpse, with a morgue toe-tag. Maybe it won't win an advertising award, but the deadly serious message is quickly conveyed.

The spurious speculation that these dramatic billboards discourage real estate sales and tourism in the county is a pathetic effort to avoid the issue. Anti-drug equals anti-growth? Put up more Happy Faces along the roadside?

More young people are dying, or suffering physical destruction, because they use heroin. The etiology of heroin addiction is complicated; individuals may react differently to a given dose of the narcotic. But the inevitable result is devastation for the user, the family, the community.

Grass-roots effort

The "Heroin kills" signs were developed as a cooperative effort by State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes and Residents Attacking Drugs, a grass-roots organization formed in response to the overdose death in January of a Westminster teen-ager. Funding comes from private contributions and a little state money.

At any rate, the heroin problem is here, and it is largely fed by the fearless ignorance and rebelliousness of youth who will try anything once.

About 100 heroin and cocaine overdose cases were treated at Carroll County General Hospital in the first nine months of this year. Most of them were young people.

In 1996, the hospital treated six overdose cases.

That doesn't include Carroll residents who overdosed in other jurisdictions or died trying to score the poison at drug markets in Baltimore and other places.

Billions of dollars are spent nationwide on a variety of programs to stop drug traffic, provide effective treatment and educate our youth about drugs. By one estimate, Carroll spent $2.5 million in the past three years on drug programs. Public awareness is critical, not for the user as much as for their families and others who need to intervene. It shouldn't be trivialized.

Two ideas to fight

Two further ideas to help to fight the heroin menace in Carroll County are gaining support.

One is a state law requiring all hospitals to report drug overdoses to police. Some hospitals already do, but Carroll County General does not, citing patient confidentiality.

Hospitals are now required to report cases of shootings or stabbings, or physical and sexual abuse of children. Suicide attempts are also reported.

So there's scant reason to hold back information on overdose patients. If they have drugs or paraphernalia, authorities are notified.

L The purpose is to get officially enforced help for the user.

"It's not to arrest the offenders; it's to save their lives," said Col. David B. Mitchell, the state police superintendent, at a Westminster forum last week.

Law officers will likely try to determine the source of the patient's drugs, but that doesn't seem much different from the public health investigations that are frequently made to find the cause of contagion and epidemic.

Critics argue that official reporting might dissuade people from taking an overdose victim to the hospital for necessary emergency treatment. Possibly, but not very often. A drug death investigation is much more likely to lead to their doorstep.

Another tool that Carroll authorities want is a drug court to deal with young drug and alcohol offenders. They applied for a $380,000 federal grant for a two-year pilot project.

The U.S. Department of Justice turned down the Carroll bid. Not because it was a bad idea -- nearly 300 other jurisdictions in the nation also applied for drug court funds, and half got grants -- but because the application needed more detail.

These alternative courts, operating in 14 other states, impose intense drug counseling, testing and supervision for minors.

Offenders avoid the juvenile court system and, early studies show, have a better chance of kicking substance abuse. Carroll plans to refine the proposal and resubmit it.

Officers in schools

A new state program to put juvenile probation officers in schools is also helping to spot drug problems among youth. Thirty-five officers are assigned in Maryland, including one at Westminster High School. They supervise juvenile probationers, but can alert school authorities to indications of other students' drug use.

There are partial solutions aplenty, but the principal obligation is on all of us to prevent young people from taking that first fatal step toward heroin abuse.

Heroin kills.

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

Pub Date: 10/25/98

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