Interviews and statistics combined to allow real-time drug-tracking

UMCP data to be used in state-federal effort to cut abuse in half

April 02, 1999|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

The 10 girls clustered around a conference room table at the Thomas J. S. Waxter Children's Center know too much about drugs.

Buoyed by juice and cookies -- and the unaccustomed balm of being asked what they think instead of being told what to do -- the teen-age girls have just given researchers a street-level view of what's hot in the drug culture. In the words of one 16-year-old at the table, "This is like an early warning."

The girls have covered well-worn drug turf -- heroin, cocaine, marijuana -- as well as some new drugs on the landscape, and their firsthand knowledge is one strand in an innovative project called Drug Early Warning System.

FOR THE RECORD - In yesterday's editions, The Sun incorrectly reported the goals of a partnership agreement between the state of Maryland and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy as calling for a reduction of drug use by 20 percent over the next eight years. The agreement calls for drug abuse among youths to be reduced by 20 percent by 2002 and 50 percent by 2007. The goals for adult criminal offenders are a reduction of 35 percent by 2002 and 50 percent by 2007. The Sun regrets the errors. Pub Date: 4/04/99

Based at the University of Maryland, DEWS braids anecdotal evidence with traditional measures of drug testing, such as urinalysis and overdose counts.

DEWS also figures in a new state-federal effort to lower drug use that will be announced today in Annapolis by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and White House National Drug Policy Director Barry McCaffrey. The partnership's goal is to cut drug use in half among juveniles and adults by 2007.

"The initiatives we know work will be fine-tuned and expanded -- the ones that don't work will be eliminated," Townsend said yesterday.

"When you set a specific goal, it just changes the focus of the way things work," said Adam Gelb, a senior policy adviser for the lieutenant governor. "We will focus on specific people, places and drugs."

State and national officials said the partnership will use state and national surveys to measure whether drug use is dropping.

DEWS, which was created after a spike in heroin use by suburban teens caught state officials by surprise last year, will bring "real-time" drug information to the table as part of the effort to measure drug use, identify new drugs and prevent their spread.

"No one has ever done this -- get a real-time survey," said Dr. Eric D. Wish, director of the Center for Substance Abuse Research in College Park, which oversees DEWS. Traditionally, there has been a nine- to 12-month lag between drug-use research and its publication. But the drug culture, particularly among adolescents, can change in days or weeks, leaping from urban drug corners to suburban high schools and back.

In its first nine months, DEWS has established a monthly one-page fax charting drug trends that is sent across the United States and to 21 other countries. DEWS has also begun urine testing of juveniles in Maryland's five detention facilities.

The first set of results offers few surprises. Nearly half -- 44 percent -- tested positive for marijuana. But anecdotal evidence at Waxter and elsewhere suggests that testing might be expanded to check for a new drug known variously as G, Liquid Ecstasy, Liquid K and Blue Nitro.

The drug's scientific name is gamma hydroxybutyrate, and it has been cited as the cause of three nonfatal overdoses in February at Salisbury State University. At present it's legal in Maryland, although the Food and Drug Administration in January took it off the shelves of health food stores, where bodybuilders were buying it to stimulate muscle growth. The drug can also be extracted from varnish and wood-stripping products.

As of last month, the Maryland Poison Center had reported 10 cases of GHB poisoning and listed it as a suburban drug phenomenon. The students at Salisbury State, who were interviewed by DEWS researchers, took it believing that it would "make them happy."

Instead, GHB sent them to the hospital, and DEWS researchers Erin Artigiani and Brook Wraight put it high on their list of questions for the girls at Waxter.

Artigiani and Wraight had plenty of other questions. What about heroin? Still around, more snorting than sniffing, they are told. Heroin dealers are charging more in Carroll County than in downtown Baltimore, the girls said, and heroin is also the more desirable drug to sell.

The questions also provide insight into the life of an addict. "They told us about living in an `abandominium' in East Baltimore," Artigiani said.

Artigiani and Wraight also will evaluate information from treatment centers, data about arrests, overdoses, school suspensions and expulsions.

"You look for trends, you look for things that come up consistently," Wraight says. "A certain amount of it is intuitive."

In addition to being used by policy-makers to prevent drug deaths and new addictions, the information can shape advertising, help parents recognize a drug problem in their children and educate teachers and police officers about new kinds of drug abuse.

The girls at Waxter take a more personal view.

"I want people to learn about drug addiction," says a 17-year-old from Caroline County. "The more they know about it, the more they can help me."

Pub Date: 4/02/99

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