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Heroin in the Suburbs

After a decade of declining drug use among American teen-agers, the trend started going the other way in 1993. That year, medical experts noted that more teens were beginning to experiment with marijuana, inhalants and hallucinogens such as LSD. The experts then made a fearful prediction that the search for bigger and better highs would lead these kids to harder drugs.

A recent Sun report on heroin's ascendancy as a drug of choice among suburban teens has borne out this prophecy. The local statistics aren't overwhelming at first glance; 104 teens from Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties underwent heroin-related treatment in fiscal 1995. But the fivefold growth in the number of treatment cases since 1993 has experts alarmed. They also worry that the addictive nature of heroin and the potency of what is now on the market will lead youths to a dangerous habit that goes way beyond dabbling in "recreational" drugs.

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The myth of the suburban paradise holds that teens strung-out on heroin and even lesser drugs are almost certain to have dark skin and city addresses. Anyone who buys that lie is suffering from a bad case of denial. Not only are drug users living in affluent bedroom communities miles from the inner city, but they are getting younger by the year.

In Baltimore County, for example, 119 students were expelled for drug and alcohol infractions during the 1993-94 school year; 88 of them were high school students, 31 were middle schoolers. This past year, the total nearly doubled, to 213; meanwhile, the number of expelled middle schoolers rocketed to 63. None of the cases involved heroin, though county substance abuse czar Michael Gimbel says he expects some in the 1995-96 year.

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Small wonder Mr. Gimbel says the increased drug activity has him dreading what the new school year will bring. To fight back, he will hold monthly meetings, free and open to parents throughout the region, to teach them the tell-tale signs of drug use among teens; the importance of taking a strong anti-abuse stand when their children are still in elementary grades, and the need to be healthy role models for their youngsters.

Heroin has long had a hip cachet because of who used it, from 1950s jazz giants such as Charlie Parker to 1990s Hollywood and rock stars such as River Phoenix and Kurt Cobain. Yet the drug is undeniably lethal -- as evidenced by Parker, Phoenix, Cobain and others whose heroin use paved the way to an early self-destruction.


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