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Coastal Communities Grapple With Spike In Heroin Use

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An increase in heroin use in Ocean City, Md. has been tied to a crackdown on prescription opiates.
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An increase in heroin use in Ocean City, Md. has been tied to a crackdown on prescription opiates.

Heroin is a drug often associated with big cities. But in the small coastal community of Ocean City, Md., police and public health officials are grappling with their own spike in heroin abuse.

Doris Moxley, the director of the Worcester County Health Department's addictions program, says a decade ago only 2-3 percent of her clients were dealing with an addiction to heroin or other opiates. When she recently updated those statistics, she immediately saw a big change.

"About 20 percent of the people walking through our doors now are choosing opiates as one of their drugs of choice," she says.

The problem came to light in December, when the Ocean City Police Department arrested 26 people allegedly connected to a heroin distribution ring.

Bernadette DiPino was chief of the department at that time. "We were able to seize three vehicles, a 110 bags of heroin, five bags of cocaine, five replica handguns, and about $650 in cash... and the investigation is going to continue on," she says.

DiPino says a police crackdown on prescription drug abuse is part of the reason for the growing number of people turning to heroin. 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.

"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," she says. "And with the attacks on those cartels, it's restricting a lot of the cocaine that's able to be imported, and that's causing the price to go up."

Addiction counselors say there are several options for people looking to kick a heroin addiction. The first is to quit the drug cold turkey. The second is to use a "maintenance" drug like methadone or buprenorphine to gradually wean yourself off heroin. But accessing these drugs, particularly buprenorphine, can be a challenge in a rural community.

"The problem actually is that we don't have enough physicians in our community who are prescribing and treating people with buprenorphine," says Doris Moxley.

Moxley and other addiction counselors say they'd really like to see more local doctors offering buprenorphine. 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.

"The grab that it takes on your neuro-transmitters is so awesomely powerful that people often underestimate it," she says.


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