Baltimore's deserved heroin reputation [Commentary]

The drug, whatever the true number of users, is devastating the lives of addicts and their families -- especially the children

September 17, 2014|By Kevin Shird

"The Heroin Capital of America" — what an unpleasant way to describe Baltimore. But stay seated, I'll get back to that in a second. I want to talk about something else first, "COAP" which stands for Children of Addicted Parents. For some, it's a difficult term to comprehend, but for many of those labeled with it, it's a life sentence.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, children of addicted parents are more likely to exhibit symptoms of depression and anxiety; they're at a higher risk of becoming alcohol and drug abusers due to both genetic and family environment factors; and they experience greater physical and mental health problems and higher health and welfare costs than do children from non-addicted families.

Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski recently acknowledged that "the crisis of increased heroin use in Baltimore and across America is destroying families and ravaging communities." To those of us in the trenches working with treatment providers and schools, we already knew this. We see the carnage experienced by those who interact with addicts every day. When I think of children of addicts, I think of one young lady in particular. At the age of 16, she shared her story during a session in a prevention program in Baltimore. Her mother was HIV positive with six children, still injecting heroin. Instantly, I realized this young child must have incredible resilience just to be there.

Recently, National Geographic aired a show entitled, "Drugs Inc.; the High Wire," which enraged some in Baltimore. The show depicted Baltimore in a not so glamorous light revealing our dark side of drug use with some offended that those journalists dared to air our dirty laundry and others claiming that "this is not who we are."

Heroin addiction in Baltimore is real. It's not fabricated or trumped up to appease viewers in Kansas and Texas who still have an appetite for the popular television series "The Wire," and National Geographic isn't out to get Baltimoreans. The disease of addiction, particularly heroin use, in Baltimore is as real as Maryland crab cakes, and whether we'd like to acknowledge it or not, the problem is extraordinary.

The airing of the National Geographic piece created mayhem for the local pundits who argued about everything from the "real" agenda of the network to the accurate count of heroin addicts in Baltimore. Is the number really 60,000 as stated in the piece, some wondered, or is it closer to 11,000 heroin addicts in Baltimore reported by others?

I see this as a perfect opportunity to have a discussion about the unsung heroes of this conversation, the COAP in Baltimore. Regarding the number of addicts in the city, how relevant is that in terms of the heroin problem? The disease of addiction is friend to no race, class or gender and has the power to destroy a human being from limb to limb. Should the debate be about how many addicts are in the city, or should the debate be more relevant to addressing solutions with tangible outcomes? One fact that can't be debated is that we have had a drug problem in Baltimore for decades and many of our children have become its casualties.

In June 2014, I was part of a panel discussion in Dallas, Texas. The segment was entitled "the Heroin Epidemic in America" hosted by the United States Conference of Mayors. Fellow panelists included the mayor of Boston, director of the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy and the director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing at the U.S. Justice Department. Each panelist agreed on the two major discussion points: There's a heroin epidemic in the United States, and the epidemic is being fueled by prescription drug abuse, particularly opioids like oxycontin, oxycodone and percocet.

The heroin problem in Baltimore isn't just a city epidemic. It's a national problem that needs a comprehensive approach like enforcement, treatment and prevention. The last thing we need is to continue hiding the perceived "dark family secret" like its really a secret. Few of our citizens care so much about the accurate numbers portrayed in the National Geographic episode that we lose sight of the real issue: The disease of addiction and the children of addicts who are being negatively affected by their parents addiction.

Kevin Shird is author of "Lessons of Redemption" and a youth advocate. His email is kevin.shird@yahoo.com.


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