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From left, Carly Gabriel, 15, Sydney Shomler, 16, and Shannon McHenry, 17, of the FoolProof Improvisational Troupe act out a scene centered around an intravenous drug user during Monday night's "Speak Out...Heroin, Prescription Drugs and More," Carroll County's Annual Substance Abuse Awareness Program in Westminster October 27, 2014.
From left, Carly Gabriel, 15, Sydney Shomler, 16, and Shannon McHenry, 17, of the FoolProof Improvisational Troupe act out a scene centered around an intravenous drug user during Monday night's "Speak Out...Heroin, Prescription Drugs and More," Carroll County's Annual Substance Abuse Awareness Program in Westminster October 27, 2014. (DYLAN SLAGLESTAFF PHOTO, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Last December, Sean Schmidt fell asleep in his car in a Mount Airy parking lot and never woke up. It was just two days after his 23rd birthday and the 2008 graduate of Liberty High School had overdosed on a powerful opioid drug he thought was heroin. According to his mother, Beth Schmidt, Sean is no outlier: During an interview Monday evening, she pulled a pink slip of paper from her purse, a paper densely etched with the names of young people.

"I carry this list with me and these are all the people that I know, that have lost their lives [to heroin] since 2012," she said of the paper. "These are just kids from Liberty High School, Century High School and FSK, and I'm doing this to let parents know that it can happen to their kid and they have to pay attention ... It's out there and it is readily available."

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Beth Schmidt was preparing to speak at the Carroll County Arts Center as part of the 23rd annual Substance Abuse Prevention Program of the Carroll County Health Department, which brings together public health, law enforcement and community members to discuss the trends in substance abuse, according to Linda Auerback, substance abuse prevention supervisor at the Carroll County Health Department.

Past events have focused on alcohol abuse, prescription drugs and the synthetic, marijuana-like compounds sold as "spice," but this year was all about heroin.

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"We are in the middle of a heroin epidemic," said Charles Hedrick, a 19-year veteran of the Drug Enforcement Administration and a group supervisor for intelligence operations in Baltimore, who was the keynote speaker at Monday's event. He told those gathered: "The face of heroin has changed … Where once it was perceived as a problem of the inner city, these days the growth place of heroin is in your suburbs and your rural areas."

This shift in heroin use is part of a historical trend. According to Hedrick's presentation, heroin use peaked in the mid-'70s when there were more than 500,000 users in the U.S., and had been dropping, until the introduction of opioid pain medications such as oxycontin.

"Pain killers being overprescribed addicted a whole new generation," he said. Many people in the suburbs began taking opioid medications legitimately, prescribed by a doctor for real pain, but after being cut off they found they still had cravings. Those cravings, he said, could be satisfied very cheaply by heroin purchased on the street.

Unlike a pill from a doctor, the strength of which is known, street drugs can be of any potency, according to Hedrick, and the result of a new wave of users graduating from prescription pills to street drugs had resulted in a rise in heroin overdoses. According to Hedrick's data, there were two heroin related overdose deaths in Carroll County in 2011, while in 2013 there were 14.

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Accidental overdoses have long dogged heroin users, according to Hedrick, but over the past two years or so, Maryland has seen a new trend that has made an already bad situation worse: The influx of heroin cut with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid drug 100 times as potent as morphine. Cutting heroin with a potent drug like fentanyl makes for higher profits for cartels, according to Hedrick, but the mixture is so potent even a small amount can kill and those mixing fentanyl and heroin are not working with pharmaceutical grade precision or concern for the user.

In 2013, there were 17 deaths attributed to fentanyl in Maryland, according to Hedrick's statistics, while in 2014, the tally through September is 132 deaths statewide.

It was fentanyl that killed Sean Schmidt.

"Sean was the first case of fentanyl [poisoning] in the county," his mother said. "It never crossed my mind, even though we were fighting it the whole time, that he might actually lose his life to this."

Sean Schmidt had been in and out of rehab and had been clean for more than a year at the time of his overdose, according to Beth Schmidt.

As she speaks to parents and the community about her son's story, Schmidt said she emphasizes prevention as the key. With such deadly drugs mixed with already dangerous heroin, the only sure move is to keep kids from ever trying the drugs to begin with.

When it comes to a person who has started using, however, she said it's important to move quickly to help them, to realize addiction is a disease that might kill them. She also encouraged parents to get trained in the proper use of naloxone, an opioid drug antidote, and have a dose of it on hand.

"The stigma that's attached to it ... if they come forward, you have to have enough respect for them to just, do what you have to do. You can get upset and all that stuff later, but if you yell and scream at your kid it's just not going to work," she said. "Prevention is the key, but once you're past that, there's nothing else that you can do except help. No shame, no blame, only love."

Reach staff writer Jon Kelvey at 410-857-3317 or jon.kelvey@carrollcountytimes.com.

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