Smack in the Middle of the'Burbs
Heroin Hits Home in Carroll County
O'Hara took a "bump" or two too many of the $15 bag of heroin he allegedly bought from three other kids, and his father was unable to wake him the next morning.
The student's death seemed to barely make a ripple outside of his circle of friends and acquaintances at Westminster High. In a student body of about 2,300, life tends to go on--even in the face of three drug-related student deaths in the past two years.
"Horrible as it was, kids took Liam's death in stride, just like they've taken the previous deaths in stride," shrugs "John," a veteran Westminster High teacher who asked that his real name not be used. For three decades John has watched all of the local cycles of drugs--pot, LSD, PCP, psychedelic mushrooms, crank, coke, ecstasy, crack, legally purchased inhalants, and now heroin--ebb and flow at the school.
"But kids are funny," he says. "They've all got their own problems, and life does go on. For one thing, they really do think they're invincible--they have this 'no fear' attitude that it can't happen to them. There's also a certain fatalism that they have. They've already seen it all, and they're older than we were at that age. Older than we've ever been."
No, O'Hara's death didn't set off the drug panic currently engulfing this Carroll County community, which since the opening of Interstate 795 has become a growing and increasingly wealthy Baltimore commuter suburb. The real uproar started a couple of weeks later, when two of the three Westminster High students charged with selling O'Hara the lethal dose of smack turned up back in class two days after their arrest. (The third was sent to the Charles Hickey School, a Baltimore County juvenile-detention facility, because he had a prior charge.)
"We were all pissed when they let those kids come right back into class with us," says Lacey Auerback, whose mother Linda is the founder of Residents Attacking Drugs (RAD), a new Carroll County grass-roots organization devoted to sounding the community alarm over teenage heroin use. "Nothing happened to them, which is not teaching a lesson to anybody.
"Worst of all, some them were even making little jokes about Liam's death," she says. "I remember I walked back into school the day after we were all up at the state's attorney's office [for an anti-drug rally], and one of [the alleged dealers] had seen us on the TV news. He looked right at me and my friends and told us, 'I want to spit in every one of those people's faces that were there.'"
The Jan. 28 rally drew about 50 Westminster-area parents and students to confront state's attorney Jerry Barnes and demand an explanation for his handling of the alleged smack dealers. Within days Linda Auerback and her fellow neophyte activists were channeling their anger and fear into the formation of RAD.
"Our wonderful town is at the edge of a precipice," Joyce Tierney, prevention coordinator for Junction, a Westminster drug-treatment center, said at a meeting a few weeks after O'Hara's death. "We are losing our children over that precipice, one by one. And some of them won't come back."
Before the events of the past few months, community drug-education meetings organized by area treatment facilities or Westminster High would attract only a handful of participants. A Feb. 12 meeting--a forum, sponsored by Junction, titled Drugs in Carroll County: Where Do We Go From Here? and held at Westminster's Senior Activities Center--drew nearly 200. The tone at the meeting was one of urgency, frustration, and barely contained anger.
Many of the folks attending had moved to Carroll County in recent years from Baltimore City or from Baltimore County's deteriorating inner suburbs. Now the very sort of urban blight they'd sought to escape seemed to have followed them to Carroll's presumably greener pastures. They cast about for someone or something--the school system, law-enforcement agencies, the lack of youth recreation facilities, the media and popular culture--to blame. Anyone but themselves.
"I turn on the news on the big TV stations and all I see is all this awful stuff about drugs in the schools out here," one parent said at the meeting, with a full measure of indignation. "What's going on? That's not right! This isn't Baltimore! This is Carroll County!"
One of the discussion leaders was Joanne Hayes, the Carroll County public-school system's drug-prevention coordinator. She took her share of heat that night.
"Let's get one thing straight: It wasn't Liam O'Hara's death that set off the panic," Hayes says with a sad, knowing smile, gently correcting a reporter during an interview a few days after the Junction forum. "We had four heroin deaths in Carroll County the same month Liam died, and we've had three drug-related deaths of Westminster High students in the past two years.
"No, I never got a single call when Liam died. The litmus test was when those kids were arrested for selling to Liam and they showed up back in school.
"Denial is a wonderful thing," Hayes says. "It protects us. When that child died, people said, 'Oh my God, it wasn't mine! It'll never be mine!' But when those kids popped back up in class, that's when people got excited. It was like, 'Oh, they're in class with my kid! I'm not having that!'" She smiles again, with a trace of weary cynicism. "They couldn't be in denial about that."
Heroin pretty much took a backseat to cocaine and crack-cocaine use in America in the 1980s and early '90s. But South American drug cartels have changed all of that by capturing the market and flooding the country with a new strain of the drug that's cheaper, more pure, and eminently more snortable than its Asian-manufactured predecessor.
"Back when Billie Holiday [the legendary jazz singer and junkie who died in 1959] started hitting the ol' needle, the stuff was maybe 4--6 percent pure," John says. "Most of the heroin the kids are using today, which comes from open-air Baltimore drug markets like Park Heights Avenue and Gwynns Falls, is 70--80 percent pure. It's lethal, and it's plentiful."
Drug-enforcement officials say it's so plentiful and profitable that dealers often break in customers who come looking for marijuana or crack by throwing in a free bag of smack--much like the little promotional packets of cereal or shampoo that occasionally show up in the Sunday newspaper.
"What experienced heroin detectives tell me is that dealers put stuff out that's even higher-percentage purity to a new person, a new face, because the higher the percentage the easier addiction becomes," says state's attorney Barnes, who sought to have two of the juveniles arrested in the Liam O'Hara case charged as adults. (Barnes succeeded with one of the kids, 16-year-old Kristopher Olenginski; a court decision on the other is pending.)
"People are afraid of needles and just generally afraid of that whole process," Barnes says. "But with this [purer heroin] they just roll up something or take the bottom off a plastic ballpoint pen and snort it like powered cocaine. Or they smoke it. It's easy."
The higher purity and greater accessibility translates into bigger business at local emergency rooms. Heroin-related admissions were virtually nonexistent at Carroll County General Hospital a few years ago, but according to The Carroll County Times the hospital logged 18 such cases between the first week of February and the first week of March. Ten of the patients were teenagers.
Heroin-related emergency admissions of Carroll County residents at Baltimore-area hospitals have also risen dramatically, according to Barnes and other law-enforcement officials. "They snort it immediately on their way back from the Baltimore markets, they have seizures, and they get dumped off at the nearest hospital," Barnes says. "I get the impression that's happening fairly often."
"I've been a trooper for 24 years and a narcotics investigator for the last 20 years," Mike College of the Maryland State Police's Westminster barracks told the audience at another recent community drug-prevention meeting. "I've seen every kind of drug come and go, but I've never been more concerned than I am right now with this heroin problem, and with the no-fear attitude I see with the kids."
Junction's offices are in a stately old stone building that was Westminster's first jail in the 1830s. Exhaustion is etched in the faces of most of the staff; they, as much as anyone, see firsthand the devastating effects as heroin continues to gain currency among local juveniles who, in many cases, aren't even old enough to shave.
Olive Myers, Junction's executive director, cites the results of the Maryland Adolescent Survey, a study conducted by the Maryland Department of Education. As recently as 1992, the study found, no Carroll County high school seniors had used heroin in the 30 days before being surveyed. In December 1996, 2.9 percent of the county's 10th-graders had, double the state average.
"We've had a pretty standard amount of heroin out here for a long time, but not with the kids--that's the big difference," Myers says. "It's cheaper--kids can drive into Baltimore and buy little $20 bags. They're snorting it and smoking it, which they don't think is so horrible. They think they won't get addicted if they don't use a needle."
The number of Junction's monthly admissions that are heroin-related jumped from about 5 percent last July to nearly 16 percent in January. "What's deceptive is, you look around out here and you don't see people hanging on the street corners in a nod," Myers says. "It's not like that. It's a little harder to get at. . . . I think in a lot of ways heroin is still very much in the closet in Carroll County. After all, it's one of those problems that, if it isn't at your doorstep, you don't want to think about it.
"I really think it's at our doorstep now."
Among longtime Carroll Countians there is a tendency to view the county's growing heroin problem as simply another case of former city dwellers moving to the country and bringing their undesirable baggage with them: Drugs, a latchkey-kid culture of rootlessness, a minimal sense of community. Like most jaded, knee-jerk assumptions, this one no doubt does hold some water--but only to a point, as school drug counselor Hayes points out.
"You have to be careful not to get too general about it," says Hayes, a Carroll County resident who gravitated toward substance-abuse prevention after a rash of deaths among her own teenage kids' friends ("suicides, drunk driving, hit by drunk drivers . . ."). "There are homes where this happens where the parents live and work right here in the community and think they know everybody and everything. I've had people come through here who exemplify model parents in every way. Believe me, parents don't get into this because they want to mess up a kid."
By all accounts Shirley Andrews, a nurse in the Baltimore County school system, is one of these "model" parents. Scott Payne, her son from her first marriage, would have been a member of Westminster High's class of 1997 if a heroin overdose hadn't killed him the year before.
Since then Andrews--a product of Carroll County public schools--has become an eloquent and impassioned crusader against teenage drug abuse. She carries photos of Scott wherever she goes. One of them is from the only high school prom he attended. It shows an ebulliently smiling, robust kid with a Marine-style crew cut and a rented tuxedo. "June 5, 1996. That was the day that changed my life," Andrews says softly. "I went into my son's bedroom that morning and found him dead."
These days Andrews gives high-powered anti-drug testimonials at schools and education conferences throughout the Baltimore area. She often shows slides of Scott--from his infancy to the final months of his life. "He and I were always very close," she says. "He was a loving and tender child. If it had meant sitting up all night and breathing for him that last night, I would have done it. [But] this is the mission he left me with. The message I want to get out to kids is, it can happen to you."
Scott had a troubled youth. In the sixth grade he was diagnosed with an attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and was placed on Ritalin. He had particular difficulty making the transition from elementary to middle school. In the latter part of his sophomore year in high school, he was placed under psychiatric care for depression and began taking the anti-depressant drug Paxil. The summer between his sophomore and junior years Scott was also diagnosed as having a learning disability and was placed in special education. "I think he was really frustrated by that," his mother says.
By early 1996, during Scott's junior year, Andrews began noticing disturbing new wrinkles in the boy's behavior: "Defiance, more extreme highs and lows. . . . Even with the medication he was taking it was not what I thought a 15- or 16-year-old boy should be doing."
In March of that year Andrews gave Scott a drug screening. It came back negative. "Heroin is only in the body a short time--24 to 48 hours--and it's gone," she says. "Scott was slick enough that he could work the system." She continued the screenings. When one came back positive later that month, she went through her HMO to get Scott enrolled in a two-day inpatient program at Oakview Treatment Center in Ellicott City--that was the longest stay her insurance covered. "It was absolutely not adequate," Andrews says sharply. Scott's follow-up was thrice-weekly outpatient sessions in which his family participated.
But due to the treatment program's stringent confidentiality policy, Andrews was never able to determine the exact nature and extent of her son's drug problem. At one point, out of sheer desperation, she took her son's picture to the Westminster City police and told them to take him home if he was spotted in a drug area.
Andrews and her husband, Scott's stepfather, took all of the recommended precautions. They grounded Scott, monitored his comings and goings, even cleaned out the liquor cabinet. For a while things seemed to be turning around. Scott got a part-time job at Wakefield Valley Golf Club in Westminster that he liked, and he began to enthusiastically plan a career in the culinary arts.
"Once I got him into treatment I informed Westminster High, and they were wonderful," Andrews says. "They had him escorted to classes so he couldn't use the bathrooms in the halls. They would escort him to the nurse's office whenever he needed to rest. I give them top praise for that.
"If I had known then what I know now, I maybe could have saved him," she says sadly. "But even after he admitted using heroin, I still didn't realize the degree to which he was using."
The day before he died Scott managed to slip out of school early and make a run to Baltimore--one of two heroin buys he apparently made that day. Andrews says, incredulously, that according to Scott's friends, the car he was in "was stopped and searched by Baltimore City police on Park Heights Avenue. . . . The two other boys were searched, but they didn't search Scott. . . . I understand he had the drugs."
Later that day Scott rode with his mother and sister to Timonium for one of his outpatient sessions, and that evening he attended a weekly Narcotics Anonymous meeting in Westminster. But he cut out early--to get drugs again, his mother believes.
Scott also went out for dinner with the family that night--his sister was about to graduate from high school and they were celebrating. "I remember him sitting there," Andrews says. "It's called the heroin nod, and he definitely had it that night. Like I said, if I'd only known then. . . . "
The family went straight home after that. "Scott was very sweet and kind to me that night. Very loving," his mother says, her voice eerily hollow. "He kissed me good-night and told me he loved me."
Like Liam O'Hara, Scott Payne simply went to bed that night and never woke up. "I don't think Scott meant to take his own life," his mother says. "Like Liam, he just made some bad choices."
Though Shirley Andrews lost her son, she has managed to help save a few other kids. Jamie, 17, an ex-girlfriend of Scott's (who asked that her last name not be used), gives much credit to Andrews for rescuing her from a similar fate: "Without her, my name would be right up there with those other kids who died. . . .
"It's so ironic," Jamie says. "All the kids around here that are doing this stuff, we all had problems, you know. But we all come from great families that love us and always gave us what we wanted."
Jamie's flirtation with hard drugs began in her early high school years. "Back then, I never thought anything could ever, ever happen to me and the kids I went to school with. I thought we were all gonna just drink and be potheads and live happily ever after and be the next hippie generation."
That changed one night when she was out with some friends, "kids who were a couple years older, who already had their cars. We'd snuck out one night, just being bad and drinking, and somebody had a morphine pill. I was like, Yeah! Cool! . . . I took it, and it was like looking into my future." Heroin followed not long afterward. "It was like, Ooooohhhhhh!" she sighs pleasurably, recalling her first experience with the drug. Eventually she was snorting smack several times a week.
Like other steady users, she didn't notice the first signs of addiction. "I'd get these terrible back pains, and I'd think I just slept wrong, and my stomach would be upset and I'd just figured it was something I had for breakfast. I didn't realize the ill, the sickness, it gives you. It's nothing real dramatic at first, but then it gets worse. . . . You never get back that tremendous high you got in the beginning. Before long you're just snorting or shooting to keep from gettin' that ill again."
For a while Jamie earned enough from her job shampooing hair in a salon to support her habit, though occasionally she had to pawn things. "About two $15 bags was all I needed to get me 'healthy,'" she says. "It was easy to find. We used to always tell each other, 'No matter what, you can always find [heroin],' and you always could."
Along the way Jamie overdosed several times. ("Three different times my friends revived me. They told me one night, 'You were blue. You were dead.'") She also made some halfhearted attempts to get into rehab. "We didn't have insurance, but Shirley [Andrews] and some other counselors found me some funding for treatment. I went, but I ran after five days. I came home for three days, then went to the Preakness and didn't come back."
She ran out of money and fell in with another user who preferred the needle to snorting. "All this person would buy me was caps of heroin, because that's all he did. They are cheaper but you can't snort them," she explains with a shrug. "So I started shooting."
Then one day, out of the blue, she decided to go back home. "I couldn't stand to be away from my family anymore, and I told the people I was with that if I didn't clean up, I was gonna die. So I show up back home, unannounced, just wearing a bathing suit and a T-shirt, and tell my parents, 'Look, I wanna get clean.' I'd never had a really good relationship with my father, and he knew what I was doing--he'd been through a lot of similar problems himself. My folks told me, 'Look, there's no funding. You've screwed yourself. There's no way you can get back into rehab.'"
Jamie thrashed around for a while, trying fitfully to save herself. "I finally got into an outpatient program, but I was still getting high every day. I'd go to outpatient and I'd be completely ripped. My counselor would say, 'Jamie, you're high. You have to leave.' I was like, whatever. . . . I just didn't give a shit. I'd go to [Baltimore] and get high again, then call and cry to [the counselor], 'I'm sorry! I'll never do it again!'" Even Scott Payne's death didn't slow her down for long: "I went to the viewing, and it was horrible, horrible. But five months after that I was doin' dope again. It didn't stop me or any of his other friends."
The final straw came after a confrontation with her father. She'd been off of heroin for two days but was smoking pot she'd gotten from a neighbor, thinking it might help ease her withdrawal sickness. "My dad figured out what I was up to. . . . He beat the shit out of me, and we fistfought to the bitter end. I called the police on him. . . . I packed my bags and went over to the neighbor's house to chill out." When the police came, it was Jamie and not her father who was hauled away.
"I'd been through the juvenile system before, so the police called my PO [probation officer], and she said, 'Don't let her go back home! Lock her up!'" Jamie was held for a month at Waxter Children's Center, a state juvenile-detention facility in Laurel, then sent into a 90-day treatment program at the state's Cheltenham Youth Facility (popularly known as Boys Village) in southern Prince George's County.
"It ended up takin' me five months to get out of there," she giggles. "I wasn't as good as I could have been. . . .
"I'll never forget the day I got out. I was there in shackles, waiting to be released, and this boy I used to go to town with and get high with all the time comes through--he'd just been arrested the day before. He told me, 'I bet when you get out you'll only have two weeks before you're usin' again. . . . Give me a call if you need a ride downtown.' That pissed me off. I was like, 'I'm gonna prove you wrong.'"
That was Dec. 22, and Jamie says she's still clean. She hasn't gotten high for eight months, since her arrest and institutionalization. "Every day I think about getting high again! I just wanna pick up the phone . . ." She shakes her head. "But somethin' stops me now.
"It's unreal," she adds with a sigh. "I can't believe all these kids who are getting into this shit now. They've seen us drop out of school, get sent away, lose everything, get sick and ill and just have to go down and rob people. They've seen us go through all that, and they're still doin' it! Unbelievable. They just don't know what a fuckin' nightmare it gets to be."
Why has that nightmare arrived with such force in Westminster? And why now? Those are the questions that pop up whenever more than two or three RAD activists or tragedy-empowered parents such as Shirley Andrews get together. Not surprisingly, there's no shortage of directions in which to point fingers.
Fairly or not, many parents single out a juvenile-justice system they acknowledge is overwhelmed but contend is also inefficient and ineffective. "Children don't fear the system. They feel it's a mockery--that, at best, they'll get their hand slapped for dealing killer drugs," Mike O'Hara told the Maryland House of Delegates' Judiciary Committee while testifying for a pair of bills inspired by his son Liam's death.
(The bills, backed by RAD, are sponsored by Del. Joseph Getty, a Carroll Republican. One, HB 438, would require police to notify school authorities when a student is arrested on drug-distribution charges and give school officials discretion to suspend the student while charges are pending. The other, HB 893, would allow youths 16 and older to be charged and sentenced as adults in some drug-distribution cases. The House committee killed both bills; they were later revived in the state Senate, but observers say neither has much chance of being passed by the full General Assembly.)
"Until these last few community meetings [state] Juvenile Services officials never showed up--you could never get in touch with them," says Steve Auerback, husband of RAD founder Linda Auerback.
He angrily recalls the time when he was prepared to testify against an accused juvenile drug dealer but was never notified of the trial date. "I find out later the kid is right back in school with my kids, bragging that I didn't show up because I was scared," Auerback says, scowling.
"Children are getting these drugs at 13 or 14, and Juvenile Services doesn't get to them. They just get the message they can do any damn thing they want, and when they turn 18 their records will be erased. And their parents aren't held accountable either. Next time, instead of giving the kids community-service hours, why not give [the hours] to their parents?"
Peter M. Tabasko, Carroll County's Juvenile Master for the past nine years, disputes the perception of a revolving juvenile-justice door, telling The Sun recently that 95 percent of the juvenile offenders who appear before him don't come back.
"I'm not really aware of any situation where a juvenile was a drug dealer and was arrested and nothing has occurred, and he or she had just gone back out and was arrested again," state's attorney Jerry Barnes says. "You have to understand that here in Carroll County we only had about 17 or 18 felony cases with juveniles last year. Baltimore City had over 2,600--just felonies. Up here it's much different."
Barnes too has come under fire from groups such as RAD, which say he created a false sense of complacency with public announcements last fall that he'd "crushed" the county's heroin problem after a widely publicized series of arrests. Quite a few RAD members and other concerned parents also tend to lash out at the public- school system, as they did at the Feb. 12 community forum.
Eighteen-year-old Salina Auerback, the second of Steve and Linda Auerback's four children, is now a senior at the Baltimore School for the Arts. An accomplished guitarist, she recently applied to the Boston Conservatory. But her parents recall that Salina briefly went off the tracks during her freshman year at Westminster High. When she began experimenting with LSD and running with the wrong crowd, her parents quickly yanked her out of the Carroll County system.
"We really felt the danger was at school, not here at home or in the neighborhood," Steve Auerback says. "Salina was the absolute perfect child. Straight A's. We never had a problem with her, never had to discipline her. But three months at [Westminster High], and there was a total change."
Westminster High is one of those secondary-education supermalls that was considered cutting edge when its current building opened back in 1971. From nearby Route 32 Carroll County's largest high school resembles a big, sprawling, concrete-and-brick box, largely devoid of architectural nuance or aspiration. In its spacious, well-lit lobby at 3:30 on a weekday afternoon, the school is quiet, almost hushed. A few clusters of students lounge by the doors, sit on the stairs, or lean against the walls, waiting for rides home.
Westminster High has a longstanding reputation for educational excellence, but Liam O'Hara's death and alleged drug dealing by other students have cast the school in an unpleasant light that makes its administrators cringe. Principal Sherri-Le Bream has had to run a Baltimore TV news crew out of the school lobby, where it was trying to conduct unauthorized interviews with students. She has obviously grown weary at having to add damage control to her long list of official duties. Bream is a Westminster High alumnus, and her daughter attends the school. The principal has heard all of the grim quips about "Heroin High," and she doesn't crack a smile.
"We had no control over that, since it happened off school property," she says of the alleged student drug dealing and the suspects' return to school, "but we sure took the heat. We're getting some bad press right now, and a lot of it is unjust. This is really an excellent school. My regret, at this point, is that we're getting a really negative image in the community. There are no more drug problems here than there are at Liberty, or South Carroll, or [Francis Scott] Key, or North Carroll," she says, ticking off the names of the county's other public high schools.
Bream points out that Westminster has the best attendance record of the county's public high schools (more than 95 percent). It also leads the jurisdiction in SAT scores and is reputed to have the best advanced-placement program. "Kids are not just coming here to buy drugs," she says with a tense smile. "What does the community want us to do that we're not already doing?"
The Carroll County public-school system has long had an extensive and aggressive drug-education and prevention program that reaches into classrooms from kindergarten up to the 12th grade. Each county high school has a Student Assistance Team of faculty and staff members who look for signs of problems among students, including substance abuse. If they spot problems they notify the parents, and link the families with appropriate services. And more than 10 years ago Carroll County became Maryland's first public-school system to compel any student charged with a drug-related offense on school property to go through a drug-assessment program (such as Junction's) along with his or her family before being readmitted to school.
"Some parents are very appreciative when informed of actual or suspected drug use by their kids," Bream says. "But we also get some parents who totally stonewall us and end up resenting the fact that the school stuck its nose in their business. We probably get more of that than the public might think we do."
Bream says she and Westminster High's faculty and staff do everything in their power to enforce the school system's professed "zero tolerance" policy. "If we get any information at all that's credible we follow up on it. We have more latitude than police agencies as far as searching students and so forth. Instead of probable cause, we just have to have reasonable suspicion. Even if we don't find anything we'll call the parents and let them know what we've heard.
"I think in past years schools have taken on more and more of the parenting role," she adds with a slight but discernible sigh. "And we've taken on some social issues that we really shouldn't have to take on. Not because we want to, but because some parents are not doing it."
Cynics might characterize the heroin wave as drug-using baby boomers' chickens coming home to roost. ("What's that old cliché?" says John, the veteran Westminster High teacher. "'The twig doesn't fall far from the tree.'") "We do know that children of alcoholics and drug users are at higher risks," Joanne Hayes says. But she adds, "There's no rhyme or reason to it. We also know that half of the parents [of kids with drug problems] were never users."
Hayes does see a generational issue at play in heroin's newfound popularity in the suburbs. Along with cheapness, availability, and the mistaken belief that snorting won't lead to a habit, she attributes part of the recent youthful flirtation with smack--a drug earlier generations of middle-class Americans tended to scorn--to a process she calls "generational forgetting."
"I met with a drug-enforcement agent some years ago, and he predicted that heroin would follow the use of cocaine in a cycle as part of a generational forgetting that happens over time--though I must admit, when he told us to look for heroin, I thought he meant in the city, not out here. People don't necessarily stop using drugs, but they do learn how dangerous some illicit drugs are, and they stop using those drugs. For instance, there was a time when PCP was a big problem out here, then kids figured out how dangerous it was and started using a variety of other stuff.
"Cocaine is such an intense high, and you crash so hard with it," Hayes continues. "And the mentality has finally come around to, 'Hey, I can't handle this. I don't want to be this crazy. What else is there?' Well, heroin is the opposite end of the spectrum. Heroin's a nice, relaxed, nodding-off, feel-good substance."
"James Baldwin, in one of his books, describes doing heroin as like having three orgasms all at once," John says. "That's almost exactly how one kid described it to me. He told me, 'It's like getting off [sexually] a whole bunch of times in a row.'"
Some kids say the school system's intensive anti-drug programs might backfire after a point. "I'm really proud of my mom for what she's doing [with RAD], but I don't think it's going to work," Salina Auerback says. "Kids aren't gonna stop until they want to stop. Until they hit a wall." She cites teens she knows whose parents forced them into extensive, often expensive treatment programs and who started using again a few days after getting out.
"The reason you don't do drugs to start with is you're scared, because parents push it at you so much, and the school emphasizes it so much," Salina says. "In middle school and on up all you hear is that drugs are so bad, and they'll hurt you so much. And then, once you hit the ninth grade or whatever, and you do decide to try it--smoke pot or something--you're scared. But once you do, and you realize, Oh, I'm not dead! Nothing's happened to me! It was fun!, then you pretty much lose your fear. Then, after you've smoked pot a while and it's not doing anything to you, you begin to think, Oh, maybe they were lying about snorting stuff, too."
Some educators agree that the anti-drug blitzkrieg needs to be fine-tuned and made contemporary or it will continue to fall victim to its own overkill. "I've heard people . . . speak often about marijuana being the killer drug, the 'gateway drug,' the root of all evil," John notes with disgust. "The problem is that way too many of these kids already know better. They've used marijuana and some have used it extensively. Sure, with a few of them it leads to bigger [drug problems], but with many of them it doesn't. They know what the score is, and we do ourselves and them a disservice when we tell them things they know aren't true."
It's a cold, blustery night in early March. A state-championship basketball playoff game is in progress at Westminster High and the cheerful pandemonium in the gym spills out into the hallways.
Just across the hall from the gym, in a smaller auditorium, the mood is more somber. It's another community drug meeting--this one called, simply, Keeping Kids Off Drugs.
Once again the turnout is encouraging. Shirley Andrews gives her moving testimonial, shows her slides of Scott, and is showered with warm, heartfelt applause. Jerry Barnes, up for reelection this year, offers his support and talks about steps he's taking to address the problem, such as seeking funding from the Carroll County commissioners to add another resident state trooper to the Westminster barracks and another investigator to his own staff, both to concentrate full time on drug cases. Barnes also outlines the extensive promotional campaign he's launching to plaster signs, bumper stickers, and billboards around the county with the stark message heroin kills. Barnes says he's kicked in about $3,000 of his own money for the effort.
Sherri-Le Bream and state trooper Mike College, supervisor of the state-police drug unit in Carroll County, also make impassioned and well-received presentations. And Dr. Christopher Morrow from Carroll County General Hospital's emergency department offers some grisly accounts of the heroin-related admissions his unit has handled lately. "The recidivism and relapse rate is very high for heroin addicts, even in the best programs," he cautions listeners.
It's strong stuff, and audience members are attentive and full of questions. Even so, it's hard to avoid the sinking feeling that most everyone, even Barnes and the RAD parents, are still outside looking in, trying desperately to get some kind of handle on the problem, as their peers are doing in suburban communities across the country--and that the parents and kids who most need to hear the message aren't listening.
Sure enough, a few days after the meeting, a youth who was a Westminster High student the previous year is rushed to Carroll County General with a severe heroin overdose. "It's crazy, it's bizarre, it's running amok," Linda Auerback says in a voice tinged with desperation and frustration. "We don't know how we can stop it."
But on that March night at Westminster High, activists such as Shirley Andrews and Mike College seem encouraged by the audience's obvious concern. College, a lean, rugged-looking man with dark, shoulder-length hair, goes out of his way to thank these neophyte activists and urge them to keep fighting.
"I'm out there working every day, but I'm nothing without you," he exhorts them from the podium. "You seem angry. You seem upset. Stay that way."
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