Coastal Communities Grapple With Spike In Heroin Use (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Coastal Communities Grapple With Spike In Heroin Use

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:02
We're going to stay on the Eastern Shore a little bit longer for On The Coast.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:08
Our regular segment, in which Coastal reporter Bryan Russo brings us the latest news from, you guessed it, the Coast. And today, as we explore stories about taking chances, we'll take a look at a troubling trend in Ocean City and surrounding communities, a spike in the use of heroin. And Bryan joins us now from Ocean City. Hi there, Bryan.

MR. BRYAN RUSSO

00:00:28
Hey, Rebecca. How are you?

SHEIR

00:00:29
Good, good. So I remember a few weeks ago you reported on a big heroin bust out in Ocean City, right?

RUSSO

00:00:36
Yeah, that bust was back in early December when 26 people were arrested for allegedly taking part in a heroin distribution ring. And those arrests are really what put a spotlight on this heroin problem in the region. I talked with then police chief Bernadette DiPino, who said it was part of six-week long undercover investigation.

CHIEF BERNADETTE DIPINO

00:00:54
We were able to seize three vehicles, 110 bags of heroin, 5 bags of cocaine, five replica handguns, and about $650 in cash and the investigation is going to continue on.

SHEIR

00:01:09
And from what I understand that investigation is still continuing on, as heroin use goes up on the Coast.

RUSSO

00:01:15
Yeah, when you talk to addiction counselors, they're definitely still seeing some people come through their doors everyday with heroin addictions. Katricia Langford Purnell (sp?) is an addictions counselor at the Worcester County Health Department. She told me cocaine used to be the biggest problem. And more recently prescription pills took the lead, but now…

MS. KATRICIA LANGFORD PURNELL

00:01:32
I would say within the last two years that the opiate population has actually turned into a heroin population.

RUSSO

00:01:40
And that's a big change from, say, a decade ago. Doris Moxley is the director of the county's addictions program. She says a ten years ago only two to three percent of the clients they saw were dealing with an addiction to heroin or other opiates.

MS. DORIS MOXLEY

00:01:54
We recently looked at what percentage of our clients are using opiates and that's about 20 percent of the people who are walking in the door right now, are choosing opiates as one of their drugs of choice.

SHEIR

00:02:06
Wow, 2 percent versus 20 percent? That's a huge change. Why such a dramatic increase?

RUSSO

00:02:12
Well, I asked Chief DiPino about that and she said part of it has to do with the police department's crackdown on prescription drug abuse. It's a lot harder for people to get prescription drugs now. So in response, they've turned to heroin, which the counselors tell me, is easier to find and it's actually cheaper. But another part of the explanation has to do with what's happening thousands of miles away in the Mexican and South American drug trade.

DIPINO

00:02:35
We're seeing a significant impact and attack on cocaine in our southern regions in Mexico and South America. The governments in those countries are cooperating with the United States, working with the DEA and our federal government. And with those attacks on those cartels, it's restricting a lot of the cocaine that's being able to be imported and that causes the price to also go up.

RUSSO

00:02:58
So really what you're seeing is that when law enforcement cracks down in one area, the demand turns to some other drug, in this case heroin. And that's not lost on Bernadette DiPino. She says she'd really rather see people getting treatment for their addictions than just being put behind bars.

SHEIR

00:03:13
Okay. You mentioned treatment. I want to talk more about that. Are there enough resources where you are to meet the demand for such treatment?

RUSSO

00:03:19
They tell me it's definitely a challenge. Part of the problem is that Worcester County, the county that includes Ocean City, of course, has a population that grows from 50,000 people in the winter to somewhere around 400,000 people during the summer months. So they always see a huge spike in demand amongst people who are here for the tourist season. And then there's the particular challenge of heroin addiction. Doris Moxley, from the Worcester County Health Department, says some of the treatment options for that specific drug are in short supply here on the Coast.

MOXLEY

00:03:47
We do know that there are several medications that can assist people in treatment. There is on method, which is to go cold turkey and drug free, but also methadone is another. Buprenorphine is a relatively new treatment method. The problem with buprenorphine, actually, is that we don't have enough physicians in our community who are prescribing and treating people with buprenorphine.

RUSSO

00:04:11
Addiction counselors say they'd really like to see more local doctors offering buprenorphine as an option for people trying to kick their addictions. But in the meantime, they mostly just want to get out the message that help is available for those ready to seek it. Pam Hay, who's a clinical supervisor in the Worcester Health Department's addiction program, says people need to realize just how strong and dangerous this drug is.

MS. PAM HAY

00:04:34
The grab that it takes on your neuro-transmitters is so awesomely powerful that people underestimate it.

RUSSO

00:04:41
And given that it is, as she says, so awesomely powerful in terms of its addictive potential, I think we're going to see more police arrests and more demand for treatment here on the Coast in the months to come and maybe in the years to come.

SHEIR

00:04:52
Well, we certainly appreciate your reporting on this really challenging topic. Thanks so much, Bryan.

RUSSO

00:04:57
Any time, Rebecca.

SHEIR

00:04:58
Bryan Russo is WAMU's Coastal reporter and the host of "Coastal Connection," on 88.3 in Ocean City, Md. You can find lengths to more of Bryan's reports on this topic on our website, metroconnection.org. And next week Bryan will bring us another aspect of this story, as he introduces us to a man who kicked his heroin addiction and is now working to help other people. So stay tuned.

SHEIR

00:05:36
Time for a break, but when we get back taking chances and seeking a breakthrough for people with spinal-cord injuries.

MR. RICHARD GARR

00:05:43
It will be rewarding when we've cured people. There's no moral victories here. You can either help the patients or you can't.

SHEIR

00:05:50
That and more in a minute on "Metro Connection" here on WAMU 88.5.

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00:05:54
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