Heroin abuse and deaths in Harford County continue at a rate greater than the county's population ranking in the state, the leader of the county's anti-drug and alcohol abuse program says.
The county is also plagued by excessive abuse of marijuana and emerging synthetic drugs, according to Joseph V. Ryan Jr., manager of the Harford County Office of Drug Control Policy.
Opiate deaths in Harford are the fourth highest in the state, Ryan said, calling heroin the county's number one problem drug.
"While more people are selling heroin in Baltimore City, more people are buying and using it in Harford County," Ryan said during Wednesday evening's monthly meeting of the Jarrettsville Community Council. With about 245,000 residents, Harford is the seventh most populous among the 24 counties and Baltimore City.
He listed abuse of marijuana and the emerging synthetic drugs, made to mimic the effects of marijuana and other controlled substances, right after heroin among the top five abused substances locally, along with alcohol and prescription drugs.
Ryan presented a slide show with facts about drug and alcohol abuse in the county. He also discussed another emerging abuse problem among the county's young people: vaporizing alcohol.
As noted in the slide show, 22.6 percent of Harford County high school students smoke marijuana regularly, according to the 2010 Maryland Youth Tobacco Survey.
Ryan said marijuana is widely known as a gateway drug, but many people fail to recognize alcohol is another contributing factor to lifelong addictions.
In 2012, he said, the maternal drug and alcohol exposure rate of newborns in Harford County spiked at 29.2 per 1,000 newborns in comparison to 16.9 per 1,000 newborns across the state during the same year.
"When these newborns take their first breath, they are immediately going through detox," he said.
According to Ryan, Harford's high addiction rates result from factors such as residents having a large amount of disposable income, the county's proximity to the I-95 Baltimore-Philadelphia corridor — a major drug transshipment area — and a large number of mental health issues in the county.
"We are seeing there are a lot of mental health problems and people are taking drugs to self-medicate and becoming addicted," he said.
Ryan said Harford County offers several addiction counseling centers and services to help people recover from drug or alcohol addictions.
He also noted that a new outdoor prescription drug drop-off center was installed at the Maryland State Police Bel Air Barrack to try to alleviate prescription drug abuse.
Captain Jack Meckley, of the Harford County Sheriff's Office, said drugs trends are cyclical in nature.
"A drug can be popular now and then in a few years, no one is using it anymore," Meckley told the crowd.
While heroin abuse remains the county's most pervasive drug issue, Ryan said the Office of Drug Control Policy also is concerned with the emergence and use of synthetic drugs and other abused substances among Harford residents.
How-to videos on vaporizing alcohol — which Ryan said eliminates the caloric intake, hangovers and allows the user to get drunk quicker — are popping up on social media sites like Facebook.
The three known ways to vaporize alcohol are to drop a carbon dioxide pill into a container with alcohol, pour alcohol over dry ice or pump pressurized air into a bottle of spirits.
"The problem with this method is that if you ingest too much of the vapor into your system your body and go into shock, and it will kill you," Ryan said.
Ryan said 25i-NBOMe is a synthetic drug, similar to LSD or PCP, which is relatively new to the area. He said the drug has side effects that cause extreme aggression and violent attacks.
Residents should also become aware of the dangers of Krokodil, a homemade cocktail of poisonous chemicals like codeine, paint thinner and iodine, Ryan's slide show explained.
"Parents should familiarize themselves with these drugs and their street names to keep a lookout," Ryan said. "These drugs have nicknames and your kids could be talking right around you and you would never know."
The synthetic widely known by the name "spice," also known as K2 or herbal incense, is readily available in Harford; it can be purchased legally at many gas stations and convenience stores. Spice is weeds or herbs soaked in chemicals or poison causing seizures, agitation and anxiety, nausea and vomiting and even psychotic symptoms.
Last August, Harford County sheriff's detectives uncovered what they believe is a multi-million dollar spice "manufacturing and distribution operation" while investigating an illegal handgun transaction in Forest Hill.
Materials were seized and sent to the federal FDA to determine if the operation was making legal or illegal substances.
"We still don't have an answer from the lab on if it was a legal or illegal substance," Cristie A. Kahler, public information specialist for the Harford County Sheriff's Office, said Thursday.
Kahler said the biggest issue with synthetic drugs is they are often one molecule in their compound away from being illegal.
"The thing that makes spice difficult to legislate is because it's a bunch of chemicals combined, but one change in a molecule can make the substance legal," Kahler said. "It makes it hard to get ahead of the drugs and so our legislators are always playing catch-up."