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It’s a growing problem, and no one set of people is immune to it.

Maryland has seen an increase in heroin use, and Charles County has been no exception. While the Charles County Sheriff’s Office reported 74 arrests involving the drug in 2011, there were 95 heroin arrests in 2012 and 149 in 2013, according to sheriff’s office spokeswoman Diane Richardson.

From 2008 to 2011, according to the county’s Opiate Overdose Prevention Plan, drafted by the Charles County Department of Health, there was a .60 percent increase in inpatient hospital visits in the county for opioids and .12 percent increase in emergency room visits for opioids. The state averages for these rates were .18 and .07, respectively. In 2011, the inpatient admission rate for opioids was 1.23 per 100,000 people, the lowest rate in all of Southern Maryland.

In 2009, the county’s average arrest rate for the distribution and manufacture of any drugs sat at 134.3 per 100,000, well below the state average of 206.6. The arrest rate for possession was 817.7 per 100,000, higher than the state average rate of 703.9. In 2009, Charles County’s drug-induced death rate of 10.5 per 100,000 population was below the state rate of 13.4.

Maryland’s chief medical examiner reported heroin as a potential cause of two deaths in Charles County in 2009 and three in 2010, although the report notes the examiner handles few drug-related deaths annually, and the deaths might have resulted from multiple substances.

2008 to 2010 did not see an increase in Charles County in state-funded treatment for heroin abuse for those younger than 18, although these years saw an increase in treatment for prescription opiate abuse, from eight patients in 2008 to 22 in 2010. Admission for prescription opiates also tripled in those years for the 18-to-20 crowd, from 16 in 2008 to 53 in 2010. Heroin admission rates remained comparable each year.

The largest increase was for those older than 21. In 2008, 42 people seeking treatment for heroin addiction were seen. That number increased to 78 in 2009 and 79 in 2010. In 2008, 106 people in the same age group sought treatment for prescription opiate addiction, along with 145 in 2009 and 195 in 2010.

For fiscal 2012, 198 people sought treatment for prescription opiate addiction. From 2007 to 2011, according to the report, about 25 people died each year in Southern Maryland from overdosing on heroin. More recent statistics on overdoses were not immediately available.

Sara Haina, the Charles County Department of Health’s director of substance abuses services, said they treat about 500 patients a month, about 200 of whom suffer from opiate addiction.

“Today, most of these people started out taking prescription drugs,” Haina said of those seeking treatment for heroin. “They take a known medicine, and when it becomes unavailable they move to heroin.”

Some of the people treated start off stealing pills from family members, while others receive prescriptions while recovering from surgery or injuries and get addicted that way, Haina said.

Gary Lynch, Walden Behavioral Health Services chief operating officer, said the St. Mary’s County-based substance abuse and crisis counseling service has seen a marked uptick in the amount of users admitted for opiate addiction.

The outpatient office the facility has in Waldorf saw about 200 people come in for substance abuse treatment in 2013, and half of them were for opiate addiction. Lynch said they have observed a notable increase in the amount of women between 18 and 30 coming in seeking treatment. In 2011, about 40 girls sought treatment for this issue, while they currently are seeing somewhere between 80 and 100.

“In many cases, you need the detoxification or residential care,” Lynch said. “That gives the resources that they need to rebuild their lives. ... We basically have to give them those resources back.”

Lynch stressed the importance of the involvement of loved ones.

“From an overall perspective, if the family is around, then you want to get the family involved,” he said.

Lynch also said every county in Maryland has an overdose prevention task force.

“In most of Maryland, prevention has done a good job,” he said. “Folks are aware of this problem, and the pills aren’t as easy to obtain anymore.”

For one county woman, these numbers came to life. Her son’s struggle with heroin addiction began typically enough.

The woman, whose identity the Independent is withholding to protect her privacy along with her son’s, said her 22-year-old son started off drinking and smoking marijuana. That led to taking prescription pills, she said, and eventually led to heroin. Before his addiction took hold, she said, her son had been a “popular, good-looking athlete.”

“When I was in high school, you could easily differentiate who did drugs and who didn’t. It’s just not like that anymore,” the woman said in a phone interview. “I wouldn’t say we saw an immediate shift. He was a functioning addict. He held down two jobs, and he didn’t like to drink much. We didn’t see it immediately, but our other children started to point it out. We thought he’d never do that … but we started searching his room and vehicle and found things that made us realize we had a serious problem.”

Before realizing the depth of her son’s problem, the woman said she and her husband had never dreamed something like this would happen to their family.

“We talked to [their children] about drunk[en] driving, the dangers of smoking weed,” she said. “We never thought in our wildest dreams we’d have to address heroin. We just never thought that it would be something the kids around here would even consider.”

Since entering treatment, her son has relapsed about three times. This time, she said, he’s been sober for about two months, and she is trying to hold onto the hope that this particular go-round with sobriety finally will stick.

“We were of the mind the first time he relapsed that the first time he’d come back from recovery he’d be fixed,” she said. “Very few do not relapse, and the only ones I’ve found who haven’t are on some new types of medication that are very effective. He’s had times where he had a good 90-day run being clean and then relapses, but ... it’s important to get back into recovery. I try not to get excited counting the 90 days, the 120 days. I just want every day to be a good, clean day.”

When he first began prosecuting in Charles County in 1993, Charles County State’s Attorney Anthony B. Covington (D) said heroin-related offenses were relatively rare in the criminal justice system. Now, two decades later, Covington said they deal with significantly more arrests for both possession of and dealing the drug. This trend stems from “a straight line from prescription drugs.”

“With the increase in the abuse of opiate-based drugs, [heroin] is getting abused more and more,” Covington said. “We’ve had a huge increase in the arrests and charges. Prescription drugs are expensive to buy on the streets ... and if you get a habit, just one pill doesn’t do it. It gets very expensive, and once you get addicted just swallowing them doesn’t do it. People will crush them and snort them, and then freebase them ... and then you might as well go ahead and use heroin because it’ll only cost you about $20, as opposed to $30 a pill.”

Covington also said there is a difference in treatment in the court system for those who use the drug and those who supply it to others.

“It’s a problem. It has a horrendous effect on the user,” Covington (D) said. “You’ve got to fight the demand ... and continue outreach and education. That’s obviously important. Folks who get addicted, we have to get them treatment. We have to clamp down on the dealers. The state can only do so much. Treatment and education are the key, and treating dealers like dealers, peddling misery at the expense of others.”

Charles County Sheriff Rex Coffey expressed similar concern but felt there might be other solutions.

“To be completely honest with you, in between plea deals in the courthouse and light sentencing ... it’s definitely a challenge,” Coffey (D) said. “I understand [addiction] is a disease, and we’re not going to arrest our way out of this. We cannot do enough to prevent people from getting into this.”

Coffey also said incarceration can help ease the minds of addicts’ families, saying jail can be “a clean place” for them.

“It’s the beginning of an opportunity to try and get them some help,” Coffey said. “I can’t emphasize enough the importance of talking to these kids. We have to continue [making arrests] to make heroin less available than it is. I know so many good friends of mine who have kids who are addicted. We’re going to stay the course and keep fighting it from both ends.”

The mother of the son addicted to heroin said she sees a difference in her son this time around. He keeps better company, she said, and she perceives a difference in his attitude. The mother also started a support group called Parents Affected by Addiction, geared toward helping families going through the same crisis.

It was co-founded with a friend and former co-worker who mentioned online something about her son’s sobriety, and the two linked up from there. The more they talked, they noticed they knew more and more people affected.

“We decided to lean on each other,” she said.

The first meeting had four people turn out. In January, their meeting had 20 people. They are hoping to see it grow more over time.

“I’m not pissed off because nobody did this to my child. He chose this,” the mother said of their struggles. “I’d say I’m more fearful and concerned. We’ve discussed it with our child and family … and decided that if this saves one child from making this choice or one family from this, then it’s worth talking about. I think this can be prevented if they know what to look for.”



Support group

Parents Affected by Addiction will meet 6 p.m. Feb. 19 at the RE/MAX office, 28101 Three Notch Road, Mechanicsville. Email pabaparents@yahoo.com or go to facebook.com/paba.parents.



lrenner@somdnews.com