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Harford Heroin Overdose Awareness board posted outside the headquarters of the Harford County Sheriff's Office on Main Street in Bel Air shows the yearly total of overdose deaths at 48 as of Monday, Nov. 28.
Harford Heroin Overdose Awareness board posted outside the headquarters of the Harford County Sheriff's Office on Main Street in Bel Air shows the yearly total of overdose deaths at 48 as of Monday, Nov. 28. (MATT BUTTON | AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun)

No matter how hard we try, the addiction problem gets more tragic.

The "we" referenced above is all of us – the police, the county government, the state government, health officials, school personnel, family, friends, neighbors and, especially, the parents. From tougher enforcement to tougher love, to teaching and preaching, to pleading and begging, nothing seems to work. And, health officials say, there are real physiological reasons – biological, chemical, whatever – of why young people who use alcohol or drugs get on the road to addiction and can't get off.

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And we use the generic addiction, rather than heroin addiction, because of more recent developments in the widespread abuse of the opiate.

First, the specifics of the addiction epidemic are nearly unfathomable, yet every time we think we can't believe what we're hearing, something worse happens. Erika Butler's story in Wednesday's paper is another illustration.

It's Thanksgiving Weekend, families are gathering in anticipation of feasts, football, fellowship and fulfillment.

Instead, five people died in five days. Two of the victims were from out of state – work brought one and the holiday brought the other.

"One overdose occurred in the bathroom of a large national retail establishment," Butler wrote in her story Wednesday. Take that in for a moment.

While people are out shopping for Black Friday deals in Harford County, someone is going into a bathroom of a large, popular retailer, known across the country and killing themselves with heroin.

The other four deaths were a bit more mundane – one in a hotel and the other three in residences. Those deaths bring the total for the year to 48, with a month left in the year, compared to 27 in all of 2015.

That might not be the scariest part of the addiction epidemic. Some more recent deaths have been attributed to the possibility that fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, had been mixed with heroin, adding to the lethal potency. Some have died, experts suspect, because they didn't realize the heroin they were taking was more potent than any they had experienced.

Then along comes carfentanil, another synthetic opioid, that's 100 times more potent than fentanyl. When it starts getting mixed in with heroin, and it's really when, not if, experts say, the addiction epidemic could be a tidal wave.

"We fully expect to see it here in Maryland and here in Harford County. It's a matter of time, we're not going to be immune," Capt. Lee Dunbar, of the Harford County Task Force, said. "It will drastically increase our fatality rate."

Those fatalities wear on everyone, including those in public safety, such as the first responders, who have to try so often to save lives, and the police, who have to knock on doors and inform families when a life is lost.

"And we have to tell them their child has died of a heroin overdose," Dunbar said. "It's sad. They're heartbroken, but sometimes relieved, because their children have been in a living hell for many years."

It's truly sad when parents – who should never have to bury a child – can feel relief after a child has died.

What's equally sad is this story doesn't have a happy ending, at least not one we can yet see, and there are many more families who will feel addiction's harshest pain.

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