Heroin still kills, and Maryland actors are needed to spread the word

A billboard with the message, "Heroin Kills," on eastbound Md. 140, opposite the State Police Barracks, is displayed in 1998.
A billboard with the message, "Heroin Kills," on eastbound Md. 140, opposite the State Police Barracks, is displayed in 1998. (Amy Davis/The Baltimore Sun)

In 1998, a young man fatally overdosed on heroin, and a rattled community responded by filling a void in drug education and prevention, creating a message they hoped would spread and ensure that such deaths never happened again.

“Heroin Kills,” 35-minute video telling the story of that young man and others lost to overdoses in the late ’90s, became an unexpected hit of sorts, integrated not only into the Carroll County Public Schools curriculum, but into that of counties and states, and countries around the world, according to Linda Auerback, today the substance use prevention supervisor at the Carroll County Health Department, and the producer of the original “Heroin Kills” video.


“It ended up in 47 states and 11 countries,” she said. “We were on ‘60 Minutes’ with Connie Chung; we were on ‘20/20’; we made a music video afterward that was aired on MTV and won a national award.”

But despite the video’s success — Auerback said she has heard from people over the years who credit it with saving their lives — “Heroin Kills” has not been able to immunize Carroll County and other communities against a new wave of heroin and opioid drug addiction. According to statistics from the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office, there have been 32 fatal drug and alcohol overdoses through April 2018, at least 17 of which have involved heroin or other opioids.

So Auerback and others have decided it is time for a reboot: From 2-4 p.m. and 5:30-7:30 p.m. on Thursday, July 19, the Carroll County Health Department will host auditions for a new version of the “Heroin Kills” story.

“There will be teenagers, maybe a girl, and the boyfriend this time. There will be roles for parents, for teachers, for coaches and extras, as there will most likely be a funeral scene,” Auerback said. “We will have by then a tentative script, so they can read for a part.”

Auerback said she also hopes to hear from people in recovery and even those still in active addiction to help consult on the story, something that worked well for the original “Heroin Kills.”

“Everything in the video was very realistic and I think that’s why it was such a hit,” she said. “We have done focus groups of young people. We want to make sure the message is what will work for them.”

Filming will take place July into September, Auerback said, with a premier anticipated in the fall.

The idea of rebooting “Heroin Kills” has come up a number of times over the years, according to Auerback, but had remained an idea without traction due to lack of funds — the original was funded through donations and a benefit concert that raised $7,000 toward the effort.

But in 2017, Auerback and Carroll County State’s Attorney Brian DeLeonardo were at Oklahoma Road Middle School speaking with principals and health teachers when a teacher popped the question.

“Is there any way to remake the heroin kills, because it is such a good lesson — updating the story line?” Auerback recalled the teacher asking, and her own response that the money wasn’t there.

But then DeLeonardo spoke up.

“Brian promised, he said, ‘I will find the money and we will do this,’ ” Auerback said. “We’re doing it.”

The State’s Attorney’s Office is funding the new film in its entirety, according to Auerback.

DeLeonardo has made combating overdoses a major issue of his tenure as state’s attorney, launching an overdose response team and bringing a drug education program to Carroll County Public Schools, but he was also a prosecutor in the 1990s and involved in the cases of some of the dealers whose drugs killed people at the time.


“It was as riveting an issue to the county back then as it is now,” he said. “The way it impacted the community and the way it mobilized the community is very, very similar."

But DeLeonardo said the time seems right for an update to the “Heroin Kills” film and associated information campaign.

"It was a single message just to warn people," DeLeonardo said. “The current epidemic is more complicated.”

The reboot will provide an opportunity to address those aspects of the current epidemic that are different from the late 1990s, such as the role of prescription opioid medications, and especially the powerful synthetic drug fentanyl, which has been increasingly implicated in fatal overdoses in Maryland, according to Auerback.

“And also the introduction of recovery,” she said. “You know, 20 years ago people didn’t talk about recovery as they do now. They went to meetings and everything was anonymous, so that is a whole new movement. We didn’t have recovery peers then as we do now.”

And that will make the new “Heroin Kills” more than just a story of tragic loss, but also, Auerback said, of new hope.

“Someone is going to find recovery,” she said. “Whether the lead is a boy or a girl, the other person who doesn’t suffer a fatal overdose will find recovery so we can bring that component in.”