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Heroin use on rise in Tri-State

August 16, 1998|By LAURA ERNDE

Watching his friend overdose didn't stop one Franklin County, Pa., addict from using heroin.

Part of a new, young breed of junkies, he seems to believe he's invincible, said counselor Shirley Strouse, who has talked to victims of what some have called a heroin "epidemic" in southcentral Pennsylvania.

And from what she and other addictions counselors say, the problem isn't confined to large cities or even to north of the Mason-Dixon line.

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Three people have died from heroin overdoses in the Tri-State area this year, including a 19-year-old Hagerstown waitress.

Over the last year, rural areas that once rarely saw evidence of heroin use now have dozens of people in treatment.

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Bill May said he used to see about one heroin addict a month at the Eastridge treatment center in Martinsburg, W.Va. Now, he said, he sees four or five.

The new users are white, upper-middle-class people in their late teens and early 20s, counselors say.

The drug's use is spreading fastest in rural areas. The Franklin/Fulton County Substance Abuse Program recently heard about a heroin user in a small village outside McConnellsburg, Pa.

It's harder to gauge what's happening in Washington County.

In April, Christin M. Suchy, 19, of 42 Broadway, Apartment 3, died of a heroin overdose, said Hagerstown City Police Detective Steve Hoover.

But the number of county residents being treated for heroin addiction dropped from 49 to 32 in 1997, according to statistics from the Maryland Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration.

Local law enforcement hasn't seen an increase in heroin arrests.

Sgt. Rick Johnson of the Washington County Drug Task Force said he has talked to officials in nearby Franklin County about heroin.

"It's kind of strange, but I just do not see the frequency or the amount," Johnson said.

The drug of choice in Hagerstown still seems to be crack cocaine, he said.

Helen Bass with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration in Baltimore said outlying areas may now be starting to see a problem that has plagued that city for at least 15 years.

"It seems like it is spreading out. An explanation? I have none," she said.

"It's not like somebody came into town and said, 'We're going to bring heroin to town,'" said Strouse, who is with the Twin Lakes Center in Chambersburg, Pa.

Area counselors said the new heroin users are enticed because the drug is cheap and of such quality that it does not have to be injected with a syringe.

"There was a, quote, junkie stigma attached to it," Strouse said.

Now, people who might have been intimidated by a needle are snorting or smoking the drug, which comes in powder form.

A bag of heroin with three "hits" costs as little as $10, counselors said.

Strouse used to counsel heroin addicts in Philadelphia in the early 1980s. The addicts she sees now are younger and many had used a variety of drugs before trying heroin.

Local users, who seem to hang out together in a tightly knit group, are starting with heroin, she said.

"I think these kids really don't know what they're getting in for. Most of them start and they don't think they're ever going to be addicted," Strouse said.

But it doesn't take long to get hooked and treatment programs have a very low success rate, counselors said.

"The public, as a whole, believes it's a bad habit. Why don't you go to church and straighten out?" May said.

In reality, it takes months of abstinence before the drug loosens its hold on a person.

Methadone is sometimes used to help wean addicts off heroin. The nearest methadone clinic is in Frederick, Md.

Many clients only get treatment when they are required by the courts.

Up against such resistance, Strouse sometimes feels helpless.

One of the most important rules for people addicted to drugs or alcohol is to stay away from the people and places associated with using.

"When you have a small town, where do you go?" she said.

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