One day in February 2000, I sat in a police car on Poplar Grove Street in West Baltimore to observe a reverse sting: Instead of attempting to buy heroin from dealers, undercover officers were offering to sell it to users. They cleared out the regular salesmen, took over their corners and waited for the customers to arrive.
The police arrested 53 people that day, including the daughter of a prominent contractor and a fellow who lived in an upscale city neighborhood. Almost all of the other heroin addicts had driven in from the suburbs — from Cockeysville, Gaithersburg, Essex, Woodlawn, Marriottsville, Crownsville, Jessup, Ellicott City, Linthicum and Columbia.
I wasn't surprised. Heroin — and heroin overdoses — had started showing up in troubling numbers in the suburbs of Baltimore in the 1990s. The drug long associated with the most dire aspects of city life had been used in the counties for several years. The heroin dealer's customer base had shifted.
Not much has changed. In fact, based on police and news reports — and my email — following the death of the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, the nation's heroin problem appears to be widespread geographically and socioeconomically.
"I work with adolescents and young adults, and I often feel that the world thinks we are crying wolf," says Dr. Ann Bruner, a pediatrician and addictions specialist with Mountain Manor Treatment Centers, which has locations in Baltimore, Rockville, Sykesville and Emmitsburg. "The face of heroin addiction for so many years has been the older, gritty, urban, homeless, streetwise tough guy. That has changed; the new face of opiate addiction is a suburban or rural high school athlete."
In candid, personal and heartfelt letters, readers reacted to Hoffman's death last week by describing heroin's grip on their sons, daughters, nephews and nieces, all of them from suburban families. (Each of the letter-writers I contacted asked that I not use their names in this column.)
A man in Baldwin worries about a 22-year-old nephew — "a typical suburban kid" from a family of college-educated professionals, including four doctors.
The young man has been in recovery from heroin addiction, but the fear of relapse — Hoffman's downfall — is constant.
"There is no guarantee that when he gets paid, that Friday won't be the day he decides he can handle a little bit and then it is off to the races," the man said of his nephew. "The worst part of having an addict in your life, besides watching someone you love destroy themselves and your family, is it turns you into people you never thought you were. Screaming matches, physical fights, the police being called with neighbors watching your personal business on the street; every time the phone or the doorbell rings, you wonder if this is the time he died because of an overdose, or a deal gone wrong."
A woman from Perry Hall, the mother of a 42-year-old heroin addict, wrote that she had come to expect the worst. She said Hoffman's death "hit hard, particularly since my son relapsed last week. He's in his 22nd rehab facility, and it breaks my heart because reading about Hoffman is like glancing into our future."
Last summer, she bought her son a one-way train ticket to Seattle.
"He always wanted to see the Pacific Northwest, and I knew that I was losing my sanity by having him close by," she said. "Somehow, he found his way to this latest rehab, which is a horse ranch run by a retired judge."
The woman said she had a message for others with heroin in the family:
"Relatives and friends of addicts don't have to deal with this hell alone. I began going to Al-Anon last summer, and it saved my life. There are about 90 meetings a week in our area, day and night. The goal is not to learn to save our loved ones. We learn to save ourselves, and I will attend for the rest of life, even after my son overdoses. Which he will."
A disheartened father from Anne Arundel County wrote: "I had always longed for my daughter to develop into what I thought she could have been — an energetic, intelligent person. ... She is still intelligent, only now she has evolved into a distrustful woman in a never-ending search for some ultimate feeling of euphoria that evaporates almost as quickly as it is injected into her veins. She has tunnel vision, which only allows her to focus on heroin."
The man wrote to emphasize the power of the drug's grip. His daughter, he said, has relapsed several times.
"People who have not had to endure these situations can't fully understand the true meaning of addiction and the difficulty that it presents for those who have to witness and deal with it for generations. People too often hear about celebrities who have succumbed to drug addiction and enter a 30-day rehabilitation clinic for resolution of their situation. But few, if any, ever find resolution. It is a lifetime struggle."
Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.