VINTON–Karen King was one of several experts speaking at the Roanoke Valley Regional Community Awareness Seminar on heroin at the Vinton War Memorial on Oct. 16. However, she was the most intimately involved with the growing problem of heroin addiction as her daughter died from an overdose at age 26.
King said her family moved to Roanoke County believing that the neighborhoods and schools would be safer and would protect their family from the excesses of modern society. When her daughter was 14 years old she began to exhibit changes in nature and behavior that clued her mother in to possible substance abuse problems. She was no longer the bubbly, laughing child she had been. She changed her friends and the way she dressed, became more rebellious than even typical teenage behavior allows for, and took up cigarette smoking. Experimentation led eventually to serious drug use.
That began a long pathway for the family through treatment programs, apparent recovery, and the courts, but ultimately to her daughter’s death.
King’s message for parents is to “notice the little changes” in your child that might indicate a problem is developing. Don’t accept cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana as insignificant issues.
Other indications of drug abuse might be falling grades, loss of interest in activities, or becoming unduly secretive.
Chief Howard Hall of the Roanoke County Police opened the program by saying that heroin addiction is no longer a problem of bad neighborhoods, inner cities, urban areas, or in certain parts of society. It has become a widespread problem, which “affects every segment of society.”
“Living in a good area, such as the Roanoke Valley, does not make us immune to the issue,” said Hall.
Greg Cherundolo, Assistant Special Agent in Charge, with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), gave a snapshot of national trends related to drug abuse. He noted that Drug Take Back programs of prescription drugs, like the one at the Hardy Road Kroger on Sept. 27, are becoming a growing success story. Before the take-backs were instituted, most people flushed their unused drugs down the toilet, threw them in the trash, or kept them in the household medicine cabinet.
Cherundolo informed those in attendance that recent regulatory changes will allow registrants with the DEA, such as pharmacies, doctors’ offices, and hospitals to begin taking back discarded and unused prescription drugs instead of just Police Departments and the DEA.
He told those in attendance that 80 percent of heroin users started out by abusing prescription drugs.
In discussing heroin trends specifically, he noted that seizures of heroin have tripled in the past 6 years with most heroin coming into the United States from Latin America and Mexico.
One issue relating to increased overdoses by heroin users is that the purity level fluctuates depending upon the adulterants used to “cut” it.
He noted that most heroin users tend to be between 25 and 30 years old, and that the use of heroin and prescription drugs has increased while use of methamphetamines and cocaine has declined. It is frequently easier to get and cheaper than other drugs.
Sergeant Jay Matze from the Roanoke County Police brought the focus closer to home by describing trends in the Roanoke Valley. This year there have been 6 deaths from heroin overdoses in the area.
“It has become the most common street drug we are dealing with,” said Matze. “The demand for heroin is high and it’s readily available.”
Matze displayed tiny packets representing .033 grams of heroin which sell for $15-20 per bag. The tiny size of the doses is one problem.
“It is incredibly easy to hide,” said Matze.
While the smell of marijuana makes it easy to detect, heroin has no odor. The traditional stereotype of heroin users “shooting up” with syringes is no longer credible as heroin can also be ingested by snorting or smoking.
Matze encouraged parents to keep a close eye on their children and their belongings, and to be ever watchful of places heroin could be hidden in the home.
Judge Philip Trompeter of the 23rd Judicial District also participated on the seminar panel. He advised the crowd that heroin has become “one more temptation in the cafeteria line of substances young people can abuse”—all of which can be toxic. He said that he is proud of the zero-tolerance policy of local law enforcement.
He went on to describe several child abuse and neglect cases he has dealt with in recent weeks which led to termination of parental rights because of the parents’ heroin addiction problems—parents who are in their 20’s.
He said that he often describes his job on the bench as being “in the human misery business.” He sees it as his task and that of the agencies involved in the Prevention Council to address the issue early with education, prevention, and treatment before the legal system must intervene.
Daniel Freeman, a nurse who is the Regional Outreach and Injury Prevention Coordinator, and works at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital, described heroin and its effects.
He said that heroin is a depressant which can be especially dangerous for brains not fully developed. While most people believe that brain function is completely developed in the teen years, in fact, human brains are not fully developed until age 24.
Freeman said that the prescription drugs most generally abused are opiates, which leads users to heroin which is also an opiate. He said that sadly the control by law enforcement of prescription drug abuse has lead in part to an increase in the heroin problem. In the trauma center he sees the effects of drug abuse in car crashes, homicides, burns, hit and runs, and drownings.
Nancy Hans, the Executive Director of the Prevention Council of Roanoke County, emphasized the need for families and the community to join with the numerous agencies which make up the Prevention Council to address the use of heroin and all drugs.
Hans, too, believes that education and parental involvement is a key factor.
“Parents have to tell kids their values,” said Hans.
Steve Ratliff from Blue Ridge Behavioral Healthcare said that no one agency can solve the problem. The whole community needs to gather round and become partners to intervene as early as possible.
Panelists repeatedly emphasized that “heroin is a community problem.”