Harford heroin epidemic gets national attention

Lt. Lee Dunbar, watch commander of the Harford County Narcotics Task Force, on nighttime surveillance.
Lt. Lee Dunbar, watch commander of the Harford County Narcotics Task Force, on nighttime surveillance. (National Geographic Channels/Giovanni Ulleri)

No longer are prescription pills the drug of choice in Harford County. It's heroin, and it's dangerous, Harford's top drug enforcement officers say.

"The heroin problem is bad. It is epidemic and that's the way we're treating it," Capt. Lee Dunbar, of the Harford County Task Force, said.


With Harford approaching two years of increasing heroin overdoses and deaths, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel, however, because the numbers are starting to level out and hopefully will be on the decline, Dunbar said.

Harford's heroin problem received national attention last Wednesday when the National Geographic Channel featured Baltimore's heroin problem on one of its episodes of "Drugs Inc.: The High Wire." The channel is majority owned by Fox.


The show called Baltimore, with an estimated 60,000 drug addicts, "the heroin capital of America," though the accuracy of the number has been disputed. As Baltimore Sun TV critic David Zurawik noted after previewing the documentary, it's a number that has never been confirmed.

But the dealers who are making money hand over fist selling heroin in Baltimore are branching out into wealthier suburban counties like Harford, where they can make more money, according to the National Geographic film.

Heroin that can be sold in the city for $10 to $20 can be sold for $50 to $100 in the county, according to a Baltimore drug kingpin in the TV show, who says the risk is greater, but so is the reward.

"I'm gonna take my chances out there," the drug kingpin says.

While he never says "out there" is Harford County, part of "Drugs Inc." focused on the Harford County Task Force and its efforts to eradicate what are called "commuter dealers," people who buy their drugs in the city and sell them in the counties.

The last 15 minutes of the hour-long episode covered two investigations by the task force, one in which they were following a man they suspected of buying drugs in the city and then selling them in Harford, and the other in which they were targeting a woman, who was believed to be dealing drugs from her apartment.

The episode was filmed in August 2013, but what viewers saw in the show is still going on, according to Dunbar, who worked with the producers of "Drugs Inc." and rode with them during the filming.

The switch to heroin

In 2010, 30 Harford County residents died from overdoses on prescription drugs, and as local law enforcement began crackdown down on their use, they saw a spike in the use of heroin, which was cheaper and easier to get than prescription pills.

To combat use of prescription drugs, law enforcement started by trying to educate the public about their dangers, pharmacists about how to dispense them and parents about to control them in the home.

"That made pills harder to get," Dunbar said. The supply went down, the demand was still there and when the price of prescription drugs went through the roof, users turned to heroin.

"It gives a similar high at a cheaper rate, but it's a more dangerous high," he said.


Users are going from a highly regulated opiate to something that's not regulated at all and it has extremely dangerous consequences.

"It's playing Russian roulette," he said.

According to the Harford County Office of Drug Control Policy, in 2010, 30 people died of prescription drug overdoses and 12 died from heroin overdoses; in 2011, 15 died from heroin and 15 died from prescription drugs; in 2012, 14 died from heroin and 20 from prescription drugs; and in 2013, 22 died from heroin and 14 from prescription drugs.

"The problem still exists. We're holding steady with the epidemic. We hope to round the corner and see the number decline," Dunbar said.

Drugs Inc.

In researching the heroin trade for its episode on Baltimore, producers of Drugs Inc. followed the Harford County Task Force and its activities in combating drugs.

Task force members trailed a man through Baltimore City, where he made several stops. Once back in Harford County and suspecting that he had picked up his supply to sell locally, task force members stopped him and searched his car. While they found no signs of dealing or distribution, police did find drug paraphernalia and suspected drug residue in his car. He was not, however, charged.

The arrest and search were filmed by the Drugs Inc. crew.

"You guys like 'Drugs Inc.' or something? Really? That's pretty cool because I watch 'Drugs Inc.' a lot," the man says to the police.

An admitted addict, the man also says: "It's as easy to get drugs as it is to get a pack of cigarettes at the gas station. That's anywhere around here."

He started out on prescription drugs but explains, "It's cheaper to get heroin, you know, and that's just, it's a terrible thing, no pun intended, but it's more bang for your buck."

"It's not like we ever choose this life, it's not like we wanna live like this, you know," he said. "It's just not worth it."

The man's story is like a lot of others in Harford County, ones the task force deals with every week, if not every day, Dunbar said, like the woman who was the target of another task force investigation featured in the TV program.

"Drugs Inc." crews filmed a confidential informant setting up a drug deal with her, which police then used that as probable cause to raid her apartment, where several other customers were waiting to buy drugs.

Also an admitted addict, the woman said she began dealing for the money.

"What people make in a 40-hour paycheck, I can make in three or four hours selling. And then who wouldn't want that money. Make 300 working 40 hours, I make 300 working two hours. It's the money," she says on the TV show.

She was charged with two felonies in that arrest and is awaiting sentencing, Dunbar said.

What drug is next?

One of the biggest challenges the task force faces is trying to determine what next trend is in drug use.

It was prescription drugs, now it's heroin, but what's the next trend?

"One of the things we're looking at is a synthetic drug, that they'll come out with something that mimics the high of an opiate," Dunbar said.

In the meantime, he said, they have to do their best to control what they know about, to keep the number of overdose deaths down.

"That's our main objective, as law enforcement," he said, "the preservation of life."

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