Dealing with the grim impact of heroin

Heroin is at an all-time low in cost and an all-time high in purity. Heroin is a bigger problem in the Northeast than anywhere else in the country. There isn't a community in Norfolk County that hasn't felt its effects. A panel sponsored by District Attorney William Keating's office held an open forum on Nov. 17 to discuss the problem of heroin, which is emerging in recent years to become more than just a vague concern. The group, consisting of the Weymouth police department, Learn 2 Cope, New Hope Transitional Support Services, and members of the Norfolk County probation department, was joined locally by the Weymouth Youth Coalition and the Weymouth Heroin Use Prevention Coalition. The groups joined forces with Keating to outline a problem encroaching upon the area. With the help of the district attorney's office, data is currently being collected to establish statistics which will shed light on the status of heroin and other drug use for the county.

If nothing else, the results have shown so far that awareness and early intervention are the best measures of preventing what looms on the horizon from becoming a catastrophic reality. In recent years, the average age for heroin users has dropped from 28 to 17, and from 1995 to 2002, the need for clinical help more than doubled. As the problem begins its escalation, treatment programs and support networks may not have adequate funding necessary to meet the need. David Abrahamian, clinical director of New Hope TSS, said that although the problem could get worse, access to the drug and developing an addiction are as easy as ever. “Seventy percent of heroin users start on painkillers and things like OxyContin,” he said. As tolerance increases after extended use of prescription drugs, Abrahamian said that people are looking for something more potent. “All it takes is an average of three to four uses over a short time to become addicted,” he said. Currently, the level of purity is around 60 to 80 percent, but Abrahamian said that 15 years ago, the percent was no higher than 10 “And now,” he said, “the price has actually gone down to $4 a bag. It's actually cheaper than a six-pack of beer.” Addiction becomes a further health risk when people try to do without heroin, but experience the onset of withdrawal. “Withdrawal symptoms can take affect after 12 hours,” Abrahamian said. “The symptoms peak at around 36 hours, at which point people will do anything.” This includes needle sharing, which aids the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C. “These might look like scare tactics, but I've got news: be scared,” Keating said. “When you're addicted, it's not a decision any more,” he added, echoing Abrahamian's remark about the lengths people will go when addiction develops.

The spread of this deadly narcotic becomes even harder to handle when addicts seek treatment. Many insurance companies will not cover the costs for treatment, and in their current state, treatment facilities cannot meet the needs of people seeking help, Keating said. As damaging the effects are to a person's health, addiction does equal harm to family and friends. Joanna Peterson has suffered through what heroin is capable of, which almost devastated her family beyond repair. Peterson has nothing but fond memories of her son growing up in the Boston area. Her son's attributes indicate a child with talents in both athletics and technical areas. Her son, Scott, played football, travelling as far as Florida to compete in tournaments. After high school, Scott decided to join the National Guard, where he was recognized for showing outstanding physical dexterity. Scott went on to receive training in the complex field of aviation mechanics through the Guard, and found a decent-paying civilian job after returning home. In the meantime, Scott was considering joining the Army full time. “He was always happy and confident. He would always communicate with the family,” Peterson said. “He never hung up the phone without saying, 'Bye, Ma, love you.” All of a sudden, Peterson noticed that her son had begun to change, and he eventually lost his job. “His old friends started to disappear, and new ones started to pop up,” she said. Peterson knew that something was wrong, but couldn't quite figure it out. “One day, Scott's girlfriend came into where I work and told me that my son was using heroin,” she said. “I just got up and left my job. I was thinking, 'How could it be heroin?' It's a double drug. It takes away a person's very existence and does terrible damage to their family.” Peterson began to scramble to get her son professional treatment. She would take him to treatment centers, only to be turned away because of the lack of space. “It takes three to five days to get standard treatment,” she said, but the future of treatment is in jeopardy. “$11 million was put back in the budget, but that will only last until June,” Peterson said. Then, just when Peterson thought she was making progress, the efforts of her struggle were repeatedly undone. “It turned into three-day cycles,” she said. “I'd get him into a treatment program and he'd come home after three days and start to use again.” This continued until Peterson finally asked her son to leave home.

Peterson recounted the image of her son leaving. “He was a shell of the boy I brought up and loved,” she said. “It was the hardest thing to do. I was watching him lose everything he had, and I was losing it with him.” To keep an addiction going, research says that people easily fall into the trap of theft and end up in prison. Scott was forced down this road by addiction. “I went to visit my son in jail for nine months every Sunday for a crime he would never have committed without the addiction,” Peterson said. Upon his release, Scott was moved into a sober house and given a construction job. When things were turning around, he relapsed and was put back in jail for 60 days. Scott's story, however, doesn't end the way the stories of many others do. “Today, he's alive,” Peterson said. “I'm fortunate. Others are not so.”

Looking to the future, she said, “We have to warn children and warn them early.” Peterson has started a support group with assistance from Keating's office to reach out to families who have been affected by heroin. “When we were thinking of a name, my son suggested we call it 'Ma,'” Peterson said. That's the name Scott uses to refer to his mother, which would be adjusted to stand for Mothers Against Heroin. The group ultimately decided on Learn2Cope, which now meets weekly. “We don't have all the answers, but we have each other and are there for each other,” Peterson said.

Learn2Cope can be contacted at www.Learn2Cope.org

Michael Verseckes
23 November 2004

http://www2.townonline.com/weymouth/localRegional/view.bg?articleid=131224



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