BERLIN – “It’s tragic. It’s home-wrecking. It’s life-altering.”
That’s how Worcester County Deputy Health Officer Andrea Mathias describes heroin, the drug now deemed an epidemic in Maryland and across much of the country. She says what makes heroin such a problem is the speed with which it creates addicts.
“You can experiment with marijuana and alcohol for a long time and not become physically dependent,” she said. “The bridge from experimentation to dependence for opioids is extremely short. It’s a couple of weeks.”
Mathias joined Worcester County State’s Attorney Beau Oglesby and law enforcement officials at the Feb. 19 meeting of the Worcester County Tea Party to discuss the rampant use of heroin on the Eastern Shore. She said that though heroin had been around for years, it didn’t become a widespread problem until the latter half of the past decade, when doctors tightened restrictions on prescription pain medications. Before that, pain pills like Percocet had been easy to come by.
“There was a decade of fast and loose with the prescription pad,” Mathias said.
When that ended, individuals who’d come to depend on prescription painkillers turned to the opioid they could get — heroin. Sgt. Nate Passwaters, a member of the Worcester County Criminal Enforcement Team, said heroin investigations jumped 70 percent between 2011 and 2012.
“Heroin’s cheaper,” he said. “It’s easier to come by.”
State Forms Partnerships
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan made the state’s growing heroin epidemic a top priority during his campaign last fall and this week he followed up on his promise to address the issue.
Hogan announced this week the establishment of both the Heroin and Opiod Emergency Task Force and a separate Inter-Agency Coordinating Council to tackle the state’s growing crisis.
“For far too long, state and local agencies have worked in silos with little communication and less coordination,” said Governor Hogan. “The purpose of the inter-agency council and task force is to connect the dots of prevention, treatment, and recovery and maximize our resources and expertise to come up with real solutions to save and restore lives.”
Hogan has appointed Lt. Governor Rutherford to lead both the Heroin and Opioid Emergency Task Force and the Inter-Agency Heroin and Opioid Coordinating Council.
“Both the task force and the council allow for increased efforts for a coordinated, statewide effort to help prevent abuse, treat addiction, fight drug trafficking, and reduce non-violent drug-related crime,” said Governor Hogan.
In 2013, heroin-related overdose deaths totaled 464, outnumbering homicides (387), which represents a 95 percent increase in heroin-related overdose deaths since 2010. Preliminary findings for 2014 show overall heroin-related overdose deaths have continued to rise and will outpace those in 2013 by approximately 20 percent.
The council will include the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Maryland State Police, Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, Department of Juvenile Services, Institute for Emergency Medical Services System, State Department of Education and Governor’s Office of Crime, Control and Prevention.
‘Chasing That High’
Passwaters says heroin, which is usually a powder, is smoked, snorted and injected by users. Most, he said, start by snorting the drug and progress to using needles to inject it.
“The biggest thing they’re looking for is that rush,” Passwaters said. “The thing is they’re never going to get that same initial high they got the first time they used. They’re always chasing that high.”
As the addiction progresses, users build up tolerance to the drug and it takes more and more heroin to get high. Passwaters said some users need more than 20 bags a day just to keep from experiencing withdrawal symptoms.
“Imagine the flu,” he said. “Times it by a hundred. That’s what the symptoms are like.”
What’s the cost of keeping those symptoms at bay? As much as $250 a day, according to Passwaters, who reports in this area, a bag of heroin — known on the street as a bindle — costs between $10 and $20. Thanks to the efforts of local law enforcement, the blue wax paper bindles, stamped with names like Batman, Rolex and 007, are hard to come by in Worcester County. Passwaters said that while dealers are scared to sell the drug in this county, area residents in search of it only have to travel over the state line into Delaware to find it. Most heroin local police seize is from the Wilmington area.
Because of the crackdown on heroin sales in Worcester County, Passwaters says police are now seeing addicts pooling their resources to make the trip to Wilmington or Philadelphia to buy the drug.
“It makes it a little more difficult for us but we’re working on it,” he said.
He said the other issue police faced in battling heroin was the array of people using the drug. Many of them, he explained were teenagers who had gotten hooked after experimenting, while others had become addicted only after an injury left them with a dependence on painkillers.
“We have to take a step back and realize these are human beings and a lot of them don’t want to be there,” Passwaters said.
Oglesby said the fact that the population of drug users had changed also created challenges for him as a prosecutor. The heroin users of today, he says, are not the crack cocaine users of the 1980s and 1990s. Oglesby said that instead of a dealer selling drugs for profit, social media had created communities of like-minded drug users.
“In 1997, when I started prosecuting crack cocaine cases there was an identifiable dealer who was spreading poison in the community and making a profit,” he said. “Now, it’s a community and a social gathering of abusers who pool their money together and make these trips to Wilmington or Philadelphia and come back and spread this heroin amongst their friends.”
That makes punishment difficult. Oglesby says that while prison was the answer for the stereotypical drug dealers of the 1980s, it’s not necessarily the solution today.
“With heroin, it’s just not that easy to send the 19-year-old kid who was caught with 1,000 or 500 bags of heroin — that we knew was going to be shared among their friends — to send that person to the division of corrections where they’re going to learn to be a better addict or a better criminal and come back to the community,” he said.
Passwaters agreed that jail was not the answer.
“We’re not going to arrest our way out of it,” he said. “It’s going to be a team effort between us, the state’s attorney, the health department and the community.”
He encouraged citizens to be vigilant and to contact law enforcement if they had concerns. Passwaters says that usually, by the time he hears from parents worried that their teenager might be using heroin, the individual is already hooked on the drug.
“Nine times out of 10 it’s too late,” he said. “The addiction’s already set in.”
He warns that heroin can become a problem for anyone, regardless of their position in society.
“It’s insidious,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where you live, what kind of car you drive, what school you graduated from or what you do for a profession … This drug infiltrates into every community.”
The Worcester County Health Department offers a variety of inpatient and outpatient programs to help those struggling with heroin addiction. For information call 410-632-1100.