Heroin's statistics defy earnest efforts


December 24, 2000|By MIKE BURNS

THIS is not a message of hope and good cheer for the Christmas holidays. It is a cry of despair, of futility, of disbelief.

Heroin kills. Still does, always will.

Pound the message into people's heads over and over. Preach in the schools, in the homes, in the churches. Put up more billboards, put on more bumper stickers.

Beef up the drug task force, stiffen the criminal penalties and the court sentences. Toughen the drug testing, tighten the probation.

And yet, the news about heroin seems ever more discouraging.

Heroin deaths in Maryland in the first nine months are up 21 percent over last year.

In Carroll County, there have been eight heroin-related overdose fatalities this year.

That's twice the number from 1998, when community emphasis on this drug problem here sparked a statewide response and national recognition.

Since that year, the virulence of the heroin plague has spread to other places in Maryland. The state's substance abuse research center now lists heroin as a "primary" drug in eight counties.

A year ago, only Carroll, Baltimore City and Prince George's County shared that sad distinction.

Hospital admissions figures for heroin overdoses swing up and down. There's no hopeful trend of decline, even if it looks that way for a few months. Reports from Carroll County General Hospital show an average of more than a dozen cases a month since spring.

If you read the story about the death of Brianna Tighe last month, you well understand this sense of desperation.

The Sun's Jennifer McMenamin poignantly wrote about the Westminster kid who knew the facts, saw the drug death of a friend, had a lot of positive things going for her and still ended up another heroin OD statistic.

Yes, there were things in that dead 18-year-old's life that we could point to as possible causes of her drug downfall.

If some circumstances had been different, if someone had responded differently or earlier, maybe it wouldn't have turned out that way.

But life isn't perfect for anyone, and other people can only do so much. While we'd like to think more could be done in each case, there is not always a way to keep turning back the tide.

She was smart. She was popular. She was pretty. That's what friends and family told Ms. McMenamin about Brianna.

And if there was one thing that the young woman knew, it was that heroin kills.

Yet that was not enough.

Officials responsible for drug enforcement and treatment try to explain the rise in heroin overdoses in pharmacological terms.

Heroin being sold on the streets today is of a higher purity, which means that it's stronger, with a deadlier kick.

Prices are down, so there's no need to "cut" or dilute the opiate with other substances. But there's really no way to know what's being sold to everyone in the illegal, uncontrolled drug market.

Then there's the story that heroin being sold in this area, primarily through the Philadelphia conduit, was a different kind that didn't respond to the standard overdose medication.

So emergency rooms switched to another antidote, typically used to treat sedative overdoses. And that, in turn, created some hospital shortages in the supply of that therapeutic medication.

All these explanations have merit. But they are not necessarily new.

Drug purity and potency have always been a risk for users - and for those who frantically labor to recover them from overdoses.

Substance abusers may often mix drugs for one reason or another: to heighten or extend the high, to lessen the impact of coming down. (Brianna Tighe died from a combination of heroin and nitrous oxide, or "laughing gas.")

However, the sad reality is that these explanations only tell us why more overdoses may be occurring and why rescue workers are not as successful in reviving the victims.

They don't explain why heroin use is growing. That lies deep in the psyche of the human mind, in the infinite reasons why people try to find escape in drugs.

And so we turn to education and community awareness and data analysis and any other means that are within our grasp, just so we can do something.

This is not to disparage honest and deeply felt efforts that are being made.

Residents Attacking Drugs here in Carroll has done a remarkable job in publicizing the true horrors of heroin.

The broad-based Carroll County Substance Abuse Prevention Committee this month launched its four-year strategic plan to curb drug use.

There are others, there will be others.

Because the important statistics, the significant successes, could be the ones we won't ever see and can't ever quantify.

Maybe it's the kid who didn't turn to drugs because something or someone made her stop and think and act otherwise. Maybe it's the family that did take the right steps to prevent a loved one from succumbing. Perhaps it's a neighbor or a neighborhood that took a stand instead of turning away.

These are non-statistics in the war on heroin. But they define the message of hope that must reinforce the community's efforts, in order to stay even further losses.

Mike Burns writes editorials for The Sun from Carroll County.

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