Harford County has long been plagued by heroin abuse and problems associated with the elicit drug to the point where the county consumed a substantial component of a National Geographic Channel documentary about the heroin problem in Baltimore and its suburbs.

Heroin been a substantial public health and law enforcement problem for about two decades and is especially prevalent in suburban communities.

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There are plenty of reasons for heroin to be a lingering problem, even as other drug fads wax and wane, not the least of which is heroin is the queen mother of addictive drugs. Heroin and other drugs derived from the poppy flower are among the most addictive pain killers available. Moreover, the addiction is one that penalizes addicts who try to quit, afflicting them with a debilitating withdrawal sickness. The sickness is so severe, avoiding it becomes part of the motivation for addicts to remain addicted.

Another reason for the heroin problem's persistence in Harford County may well be its association with young suburban users, who tend to have more financial resources to feed their habit than do addicts in urban neighborhoods.

Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler instituted a new protocol on the first of the year requiring a narcotics detective to respond to every emergency ambulance call involving a heroin overdose. During the first 18 days of the new year, and under the new protocol, detectives were dispatched to 11 heroin overdose calls, two of which were fatal.

Gahler says having a detective at the scene immediately increases the prospect of developing intelligence that will lead police to the people who supplied the drugs to the overdose victim. He cited one such incident, on Jan. 7, that led police to two dealers who were subsequently charged with possession with intent to distribute. Both had been convicted of similar crimes less than two months earlier, but weren't due to begin jail terms in that case until this week.

Like all drug abuse problems, heroin addiction is a public health matter. Treatment and rehabilitation are generally required to deal with any addiction, and such services are not provided through police agencies.

Heroin, however, is a contraband substance and for a good reason. While its pain killing qualities are hard to equal, so are its addictive qualities. Unlike some other intoxicants ranging from coffee and cigarettes to alcohol, and even marijuana, it can't be argued heroin has a recreational use value.

Sending detectives out to investigate overdoes may not be the best way to address a persistent and deadly public health problem, but until a better way is found, and as long as recreational heroin use remains illegal, it's as good an option as there is to get at the sources who feed the problem.

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