Heroin use spreads to suburbs

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Local,Maryland,Matt Connolly

When Toni Torsch found out about her son's heroin addiction, she couldn't believe it. Not here, she thought.

"You don't think that it comes to the suburbs," she said. "I guess I had blinders on."

The discovery by the Baltimore County resident is one that mothers all over the country have been making the past few years. Heroin is not just an urban drug, experts say -- and it's taking its toll on the Washington suburbs.

Source: Maryland Youth Risk Behavior Survey

Getting high
Percentage of Maryland high schoolers who reported using heroin:
  2011 2009 2007 2005
Males 5.7 5.8 3.7 2.8
Females 1.9 1.7 0.8 2.3
Total 4.2 4.1 2.4 2.6

Montgomery County and Fairfax County police are noticing a spike in heroin use. Montgomery Sergeant Keith Matthis said he has seen an increase in heroin cases, and tips from informants point to a continuing trend. "I see it coming back," Matthis said, noting that it would take at least a year for county data to reflect the increase.

Just last week, 34 people were indicted on federal drug charges in connection with a Washington-area drug distribution ring that trafficked heroin, cocaine and other drugs in the District and Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

About 4.2 percent of Maryland high school students reported trying heroin at least once in a 2011 statewide survey, up from 2.4 percent in 2007.

Former heroin addict Mike Gimbel has spent the past three decades working on substance abuse education and treatment in Maryland. He called the suburban heroin shift a "big-time trend" in the Washington area and elsewhere.

"Instead of waiting for the suburban kids to come into the city, the dealers have gone out to the suburbs," he said. "It just blows away these parents in the middle-class communities -- the last drug in the world they think their kids are going to use is heroin."

The resurgence is tied to the booming market for prescription painkillers like Oxycontin and Vicodin -- experts say painkiller abusers often move on to heroin due to its availability and their craving for a stronger high.

Beth Kane Davidson, director of the Addiction Treatment Center at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, said the difficulty and cost of obtaining prescription drugs makes them a gateway. "Once you get addicted to Oxycontin or Vicodin and you suddenly can't get it, you go to something that is available -- and before you know it, you're using heroin," she said. "And that's scary."

Fairfax County Detective Steve Carroll said his department has seen an increase in heroin abuse -- with its accompanying social ills.

"When it gets to the point where they're addicted, they either get arrested, overdose and die or go to treatment numerous times," Carroll said. "Most of the people we get who are abusing heroin are turning to crime to pay for their drugs."

Torsch knows the toll that addiction can take on addicts and those around them. When her son Dan was using, she said, she would sleep with her pocketbook and car keys. "There were times I could sleep through the night thinking, 'OK, he's doing well, he's working,' " she said. "And then there were times when I thought I was living in hell."

Dan Torsch died of a heroin overdose at age 24 in December 2010. Since then, his mother set up GRASP, an organization for grieving family members to connect after losing a loved one to substance abuse, along with a foundation in Dan's name to help families pay for addiction treatment.

"If someone were to have asked me several years ago, 'What do you think a heroin addict looks like?' I would think it's some junkie on the street corner of Baltimore City," she said. "Now, it's the college student. It's the cheerleader girl. It's our waitress. It's the boy next door."

mconnolly@washingtonexaminer.com

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Matt Connolly

Examiner Staff Writer
The Washington Examiner