Reactions are divided on anti-heroin signs Some fear campaign will frighten tourists with drug-use worries

THE BALTIMORE SUN

One of the first images that motorists see when they enter Carroll County is a sign with a pair of feet and a toe tag that warns "Heroin Kills" -- not great publicity for a county trying to promote itself as a tourist destination.

The logo is plastered everywhere, a visible scar left by the death of a high school sophomore who overdosed in January. What started as a grass-roots campaign has grown to include highway billboards, 500 window signs, 4,000 bumper stickers and 30,000 magnets. The signs can be seen in storefronts, along quaint streets and on county cars -- including the one driven by Carroll's tourism director.

To many, the eerie black-and-white signs show that Carroll is a community that cares, a place where problems such as drug addiction are tackled head-on. But others worry the campaign may be tarnishing this rapidly growing county of 150,000, exaggerating Carroll's heroin problem. Some critics question its effectiveness.

"I think it's wonderful that the community cares enough to stand behind this campaign, but does every shop need to have a 'Heroin Kills' sign?" asked Australia's tourism director, Joy Walker, during a recent tour of Carroll's county seat.

"It seems to me that they've gone a bit overboard," Walker said. "All these signs make it appear as though Westminster is some kind of drug capital."

Indeed, the signs have prompted visitors to wonder aloud about the extent of the drug problem in Carroll. Local merchants say outsiders often ask about the anti-heroin campaign.

"They want to know whether [heroin use] is a big problem here," said Christina Mawhinney, owner of Chef's Kitchen on Westminster's Main Street. "The parents of Western Maryland College students seem to be the ones most concerned."

Dan and Susan Joyce of Crofton, who have two daughters attending the college, said the signs prompted them to have a frank discussion about drug use with their children -- Meghan, 21, and Christine, 18.

"The signs made me realize that the problem is everywhere, not just in big cities," said Dan Joyce. "But I must admit, I thought it was strange to see these signs only in Carroll. I mean, Baltimore has a bigger problem, doesn't it?"

Though the number of heroin users in treatment in Carroll has more than doubled over the past three years, Baltimore's drug problem far outweighs Carroll's.

What has police and health workers in Carroll concerned is not the number of arrests and overdoses that have occurred in the county. Rather, they are concerned that heroin appeared in the suburbs at all.

And they are not alone.

Drug problem all over

This year, parents in Howard County were furious when a kindergarten teacher overdosed in a school bathroom. In Harford County, six young men have died of heroin overdoses since November, prompting parents to start an anti-heroin campaign of their own -- modeled loosely on Carroll's.

Two billboards were erected in Harford last week to call attention to the spread of heroin there.

But in Baltimore, home to about 60,000 drug addicts, not a single sign will be erected.

"It's a different kind of epidemic in Baltimore," said Dr. Peter Beilen-sen, the city's health commissioner. "We have older, more stable users. I don't think a billboard campaign would reach them. Most are functionally illiterate.

"More importantly, there's no proof that the billboards are even working in Carroll County. Personally, I'd much rather see resources devoted to treatment on demand."

One of the most vocal critics of the "Heroin Kills" campaign has been Carroll County Sheriff John H. Brown, who for the past year has shifted his department's resources from drug enforcement to courthouse security.

"To me, it's a waste of money," Brown said. "Instead of spending the money on signs, use it to fight drugs to strictly prosecute drug dealers and users. I've said it for years, drug use is a $H cancer. Until you take the proper tools and cut it out, you won't stop it."

Organizers of the anti-heroin campaign are quick to point out that the county has taken an aggressive approach to the problem -- prosecuting drug offenders to the fullest extent of the law. But, they say, such efforts are not enough.

"When you have a drug that is killing people, awareness is the first step that must be taken to curb the problem," said Carroll County State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes. "You don't want one more person to die."

Drawing attention

But critics of the "Heroin Kills" campaign say the signs, though well-intentioned, may backfire -- drawing sensation seekers to the drug.

"Heroin is a funny drug to target. Only a very small percentage of the population uses the drug," said Peter Reuter, a drug policy expert and professor in the department of criminology at the University of Maryland, College Park. "And though there hasn't been much evaluation of mass media campaigns, one thing is clear: You don't want to use them to call attention to rare behavior because it inspires curiosity, especially among young people."

Proof is difficult

Drug counselors and most law enforcement officials in Carroll dismiss such concerns.

"With all prevention efforts, it's difficult to measure success, but it's been proven that these campaigns help," said Olivia Myers, executive director of Junction Inc., a private, nonprofit substance-abuse center in Westminster.

"Is a person who's using heroin going to look at a sign and get off heroin? No. However, a family member who sees the sign might become more aware of the issue and talk to their child. That's where the impact is."

Ask organizers of the anti-heroin campaign if they're concerned about the effect the signs may be having on tourism, and the reply will most likely be a variation on a consistent theme: Unless the drug problem is solved, a drop in tourism will be the least of the county's worries.

"What we're trying to do here is save lives," said Barnes, Carroll's state's attorney. "I don't think you can put a price tag on that."

Barnes contributed about $1,500 of his own money to start the anti-heroin campaign after the Jan. 9 overdose death of Liam A. O'Hara.

O'Hara's death, more than any other incident, prompted parents and students to hold town meetings and anti-drug seminars in an effort to stem the use of heroin in Carroll County. A crackdown by state and local police also followed the teen's death.

O'Hara, 15, was the second county resident to die of an overdose in less than two years. Three others followed over the next four months.

No government funds

Their deaths have prompted a flurry of contributions to the "Heroin Kills" campaign. Not a single tax dollar has been spent. Big businesses, mom-and-pop stores and private citizens have contributed more than $7,000 for the signs.

Peter M. Tabatsko, juvenile master for Carroll County, has gone so far as to order some drug offenders to put "Heroin Kills" bumper stickers on their cars.

Whether the message is having the desired impact is a question for debate. At Junction, the treatment center, the number of people seeking treatment for heroin addiction has fluctuated widely since the campaign began.

In February, the first month of the campaign, 7.4 percent of those treated at Junction were seeking help for a heroin problem. In March, that figure jumped to 11.5 percent. April and May saw the rate drop to about 6 percent. But in June, the figure doubled to 12.5 percent. Figures for July and August were not available. Junction treats about 30 people a month for drug addiction.

But statistics tell only part of the story. Chat with locals, and you'll find that most are supportive of the campaign -- despite any adverse reaction outsiders might have to it.

Said Stephanie McFeeley, 17, a senior at Westminster High: "I think for the most part, people coming into the county from other places will see Carroll as a good place to visit because when we see a problem, we take action.

"The signs are our way of showing we care. If they help just one person, it will be well worth it."

Pub Date: 9/13/98

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