Heroin Addiction Sweeps Small Towns

Aug. 22, 2001 -- Peter McIver doesn't remember much about the night he and his friends first bought heroin.

He thinks it was 1993 or 1994 but, he says he knows it was just another dull night in Westminster, Md.

Escaping Tranquility

The predominately white, middle-class town of nearly 17,000 people is in the heart of Carroll County, a rural but increasingly suburban area outside of Baltimore, with a population of around 140,000. Peter and his friends — like other restless Westminster teenagers at the time — were seeking the kinds of thrills their town couldn't offer. And their escape from boredom involved drugs.

They piled into a car and made the 30-minute drive to Baltimore, in search of the very things their parents had tried to protect them from by living in a small town. Cruising street by street, they shopped the open-air drug markets looking for dealers ready to do business.

On this particular night — a night that forever changed the lives of these kids, their families and their town — they bought what they thought was cocaine. After snorting the white powdery substance, they realized it wasn't. It was heroin — and it was a new, more powerful version of heroin that was hitting streets across America.

Drug Enforcement Agency officials say in the early '90s, smaller players in the drug world were trying to break the market domination of crack and powder cocaine with the introduction of a user-friendly version of heroin. It was powerful, it was cheap, and it could be snorted.

Heroin Use Spreads

In a few short years, heroin use spread far beyond Peter's circle of friends. Fueled by small-town boredom and curiosity, hundreds of teenagers throughout the county were introduced, and many became addicted. The county hospital ER staff, who had never before treated heroin overdoses were starting to see as many 15 a month. Local police were arresting an ever-increasing number of kids who were stealing, often from their own families, to support their habit.

The users defied stereotypes: They were football players, cheerleaders and honor students — the "good kids" with "good parents" who believed they had done everything right.

In 1996, a 16-year-old boy died of a heroin overdose. But it wasn't until the death of a 15-year-old boy in 1998, that the town realized how widespread heroin use had become. By then, it was a full-blown epidemic. Heroin was no longer a problem that happened to other parents in other places. It was happening here.

Shattering — and Uniting — a Community

At first, many parents privately struggled, unable to believe their children were addicted to a drug they associated with dirty needles and back alleys. But eventually, they rallied the community together orchestrating public education campaigns to warn parents and teens. In doing so, they found out they were not alone.

What started in Westminster has spread to nearly every small town in Carroll County, destroying lives, families and futures regardless of social status, race, or geography. So far, there have been more than 20 overdose deaths and hundreds of heroin overdoses of young people in all of Carroll County.

Across the country, there are other Westminster stories waiting to be told. Bored teens in the middle-class suburbs of cities like Chicago, Detroit, Orlando, Richmond, Newark and New York, are also bringing back heroin to their hometowns.

Now in their mid-20s, Peter and some of his friends have been caught in a vicious cycle of jails, rehabilitation and clean time. The power of their heroin addiction has often overwhelmed their best intentions.

"I just want to be the all-American dream," says Peter, whose mother says he is getting his life back together. "Big house, big car … successful, happy."

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