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Alcohol, marijuana, friends often lead to opioid abuse, speakers tell 300 at Harford heroin forum

Alcohol, marijuana, friends often lead to opioid abuse, speakers tell 300 at Harford heroin forum
Harford County Task Force commander Lee Dunbar talked about the extent of the county's heroin abuse epidemic during a community forum at C. Milton Wright High School near Bel Air Thursday evening. About 300 people attended. (ALLAN VOUGHT | AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun)

How young people get started on the road to addiction to opioids was a major theme of Thursday night's second of three heroin prevention and awareness briefings held at C. Milton Wright High School in Fountain Green.

As the evening's speakers fielded questions near the end of the hour and 15 minute program, one of the young people in the audience of nearly 300 asked if people start doing heroin by getting it from drug dealers.

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No, they don't, answered John Wanner, who earlier spoke about how opioids affect the brains of young people. Typically, they get the drug from friends or fellow students.

"If you're getting from a drug dealer, you are way down the path to addiction," he said.

Another young person in the audience asked if kids are given drugs by their parents, which caused Wanner, who has worked in the addiction counseling field for 20 years, to pause.

For much of the previous hour, Wanner, Harford Office of Drug Control manager Joe Ryan, Harford County Public Schools supervisor of health and physical education Ginny Popiolek and Harford County Task Force commander Capt. Lee Dunbar, of the Harford County Sheriff's Office, had emphasized young people should confide in parents and that parents should talk with their children about drug and be available if their children are being pressured by peers to try them.

"Unfortunately, yes," Wanner said.

Earlier, Dunbar had said: "Our message is parents have got to be involved...not as a friend, as a parent."

The first of three Heroin Prevention & Awareness Briefings for Harford County residents takes place at Edgewood High School Wednesday night. (David Anderson, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Dunbar, who talked about the latest overdose statistics and how his multi-agency unit is trying to stem the flow of illegal drugs into Harford County amid its continuing heroin abuse epidemic, was asked if that effort involves undercover operations.

It does, he said, with the law enforcement officers acting both as dealers and as buyers.

As of Thursday night, Dunbar said there have been 214 non-fatal heroin related overdoses responded to by the narcotics detectives and 35 fatal overdoses. Responding law enforcement officers used the anti-opioid Narcan 51 times to revive the victim.

He noted that the numbers to date are more than 60 percent ahead of the same period in 2015, when the Sheriff's Office investigated 28 fatal heroin-related overdoses for the entire year. Two fatalities have occurred since the first of the three briefing programs was held Oct. 3 at Edgewood High School.

The Sheriff's Office instituted a protocol in early 2015 that detectives would respond to every overdose call through 911 in order to gather intelligence about sources of supply. Dunbar said when detectives interview overdose cases and ask "how did you get there, 94 percent we talked to said they had used marijuana."

Echoing earlier statements by Wanner, who had talked about the role of both alcohol and marijuana as gateway drugs to heroin, Dunbar said marijuana "is definitely a gateway drug, it absolutely is."

Dunbar said drug arrests have increased this year compared to 2015, as have federal charges brought against suspects, and the amount of heroin seized by the Task Force, about 4.5 pounds, is approaching last year's levels.

But, he also said, "demand is huge, the supply is endless," citing a statistic that the United States, with 5 percent of the world's population, consumes 80 percent of the opioids produced globally.

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In going over some of the state health reporting statistics about middle-school and high-school age alcohol, marijuana and heroin use, Ryan noted some categories, primarily among the younger ages, have shown some declines in Harford County, while the level of usage among 12th-graders continues to show alarming increases.

He noted almost 33 percent of 12-graders reported binge drinking and 4.6 percent reported heroin use, both higher than two years earlier.

Despite those numbers, much higher percentages of Harford County young people aren't abusing any substances, Ryan emphasized.

"Most kids make the right decisions on drugs and alcohol," he said.

Thursday's program was organized by the county's Department of Community Services, Harford County Council of PTAs, the Sheriff's Office and the county Health Department.

Community Services Director Amber Shrodes said she was pleased by the turnout, which was about two-thirds students and a third parents and other adults.

The final heroin prevention and awareness briefing will be Monday, Oct. 24, at North Harford High School in Pylesville, beginning at 6:30 p.m.

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