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4State In Focus | Heroin Prevention

This story was produced for WHAG, as part of a special 30-minute investigative series on the heroin epidemic.

HAGERSTOWN, Md. -- If you ask local law enforcement officials about the heroin epidemic, many believe everyone is at risk of developing an addiction to heroin.

"Whether you’re rich or poor, educated or uneducated, it really doesn't matter,” said resident agent in charge Brian Fitzpatrick, of the Hagerstown Resident Office for the DEA. “I've seen teachers, I’ve seen children of law enforcement officers, [and] I’ve seen very successful business owners become addicted to heroin."

Experts said accepting that you could become a heroin addict is the first step of prevention.

According to experts, 75 percent of addicts didn't start with heroin.

"I have personally never met a heroin addict that did not transition through the abuse of prescription drugs,” Fitzpatrick said.

Marty Perdew is a 29-year-old recovering heroin addict.

He is currently incarcerated at the Northwestern Regional Adult Detention Center, serving time for violating probation because of heroin-related charges.

Perdew said his path to heroin progressed through prescription drugs.

"It progressed from vicodin, to percocet, to Oxycontin, to the needle," Perdew said.

Prior to developing an addiction, Perdew was against the use of prescription opiates, after seeing numerous loved ones fall prey to narcotics like Oxycodon.

“I knew exactly what it did to you. I was against all opiate use," he said.

However, when Perdew was 22 years old, he broke his tooth. The pain caused him to self medicate with vicodin, and the shame of using opiates caused him to keep a budding addiction to himself.

Prescription drugs have law enforcement agencies from across the four-state area on edge. Although they said they hardly see any heroin use in local schools, they are seeing a lot of prescription drug abuse.

"The high school aged individuals that we deal with now, so many of them believe that prescription pain killers are completely legal for them to take,” said Lt. Wally Stotlemyer, “whether they're prescribed to them or not."

As a lieutenant of the Northwest Virginia Regional Drug and Gang Task Force and a veteran law enforcement officer, he said he’s seen it all when it comes to drug addictions. Heroin however, is in a league of its own, when it comes to illegal substances.

“We’ve never seen anything like this,” Stotlemyer said. “This isn’t something we’re used to dealing with. We have no other drug that may have stemmed from the use of painkillers.”

While officers like Stotlemyer are trying to educate minors on the dangers of opiates and heroin, the message doesn't always sink in.

"The friends that I hung out with, all were involved in drug usage. It seemed like the thing to do, and so I went with the crowd," said 23-year-old Lindsey Wine-Smalley, a recovering heroin addict, currently incarcerated at NRADC.

Wine-Smalley was 14 years old when she first used heroin.

"I was engaged one of the last times I came to jail,” Wine-Smalley told WHAG, from jail. “A week after I got here, I found out that [my fiancé] overdosed and died. I swore the whole time that I was in jail, that [his overdose death] was going to be what kept me clean when I got out. A month after I got out, I went right back to [heroin]."

Stotlemyer said the intensity of addiction heroin users develop is unlike anything his agency has ever seen.

“Marijuana users are often ones who will stand up before us and say, ‘I can stop using anytime that I want to,’” Stotlemyer said. “It seems as though [with] heroin, when we talk to these folks, they tell us that they cannot stop. They have to do this in order to survive."

Studies show heroin physically alters your brain.

“Scientists and medical professionals show that the brain is not fully developed until your 25 years old,” Fitzpatrick said. “Abusing drugs, before age 25 especially, will have damaging and lasting effects on the development of your brain.” This physical change helps explain why addicts have such an urge to use again, no matter what horrific obstacle is thrown in their path.

For many users, it almost doesn’t matter how badly they want to kick their heroin addiction, because when they’re using, their thought process is drastically altered.

"I feel very comfortable in saying that probably 65 percent, or more, of the individuals we have had interviewed in our active narcotics cases, have said that they were addicted [to heroin] after the first use,” Stotlemyer said.

Stotlemyer said by the second use, almost all users have a full-blown addiction to heroin.

Officials encourage residents to utilize educational resources like the Target Maryland Exhibit at the Discovery Station in Hagerstown.

“We have these glasses you can put on, and you can see what it’s like to be under the influence,” Fitzpatrick said from the exhibit.

You can also find out what your chances are at actually surviving and recovering from a heroin addiction, and theproper steps for monitoring and disposing of your prescription medications.

“If a family has a history of alcohol or drug abuse, or a history of depression, then any family member that has a prescription should be monitored more closely,” Fitzpatrick said.

In Winchester, the Northern Shenandoah Valley’s Substance Abuse Coalition created a website to help educate individuals on heroin use, and show a person what to look for if he or she suspects a loved one of abusing prescription drugs, or using heroin.

Ultimately, officials said if you refuse to accept the problem, educate yourself, or monitor your prescription medications, then it's no longer a matter of if heroin will find its way into your home, but when.

"I have a very helpful family,” Wine-Smalley said. “They're always here for me. Not everybody has that,” she said, speaking about the abandonment many heroin addicts feel after using or relapsing during the recovery process. “I'm glad I have my family, but at the same time they're getting tired of it. I'm afraid I could lose them."

"It's not a joke. The stories are true. You're not going to be the exception to the rule. You will not,” said Perdew, when asked what message he would give someone who was thinking about using opiates or heroin. “[Heroin] will ruin your life and quick."

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