Even on vacation law enforcement can't get away from the rise in heroin use.
On July 20, an off-duty Pennsylvania police officer noticed two women on the beach near Rehoboth Avenue, bobbing their heads up and down underneath a towel and coming up sniffling.
While he could not see exactly what they were doing, Rehoboth police Chief Keith Banks said the officer's training indicated the women were using drugs and alerted city police.
Banks said Rehoboth police found Deborah Cole, 54, of Wilmington and Karen Kane, 50, of Hockessin, had a crack pipe, prescription pills, drug paraphernalia and 11 bags of heroin on the beach.
Cole, who had outstanding warrants on traffic violations, and Kane were both charged with possession of prescription drugs without a prescription. Kane was also charged with drug possession for the heroin, the first heroin arrest on the beach in the resort town.
Statewide, heroin-related arrests are on pace to double over last year. Delaware State Police spokesman Sgt. Paul Shavack said police have handled about 1,000 heroin cases this year; in 2012, police handled 1,163 cases during the whole year, and that was double the 578 cases from 2011.
Shavack said the number of cases could be expected to reach 2,000 by the end of the this year. Half of this year's cases were in New Castle County, the remainder split between Kent and Sussex.
Small jurisdictions such as Rehoboth are not immune to the flood of heroin. Rehoboth Beach Police Chief Keith Banks said the department only had two or three heroin cases last year; this year, his department has handled four cases since March. In addition to the July 20 case, arrests are:
- March 1 – Police arrested Laureen Lamartha, 53, and Mark Whitbank, 46, both of Ocean View, with 130 bags of heroin. Rehoboth police were on the lookout for Whitbank, for whom they had an outstanding capias, Banks said. Officers found 10 bundles of heroin, worth about $400.
- June 22 – Police arrested a 17-year-old Lincoln boy for violating probation related to a strong-arm robbery conviction. The boy had been on the run from Delaware State Police, who posted a bulletin to surrounding departments to be on the lookout for him. Rehoboth police who caught up to him found him with marijuana and 34 bags of heroin.
- July 3 – Seasonal officer Tracy Jones saw Joshua Meding, 21, and Jaimey Rouse, 18, both of Milford, huddling together in a car in the first block of Rehoboth Avenue. Jones suspected they were doing drugs and called in a full-time officer. Police saw Meding was nervous and had white powder on his pants. Police said Meding and Rouse allowed police to search the car, where the two men were found to be in possession of 46 bags of heroin.
Still, Banks said, “We have a safe, clean, friendly town. Like any other community, we have some drug issues at times. You have an influx of 80,000 to 100,000 people coming in here at any given time; we’re relatively low in number in terms of drugs or crime."
Rehoboth Detective William Sullivan said the heroin comes in small, dime-sized bags called “blue bags,” for their color. The bags are typically purchased in bundles of 13 for $60 to $80. Bags usually come stamped with a label; the bags seized by Rehoboth police carried labels of “Die Hard,” “Banshee” and “Hot Water.”
Shavack said the bag names serve as the dealer’s stamp or trademark; addicts might return to a particular dealer if they like the product.
Besides possession and attempting to sell the drug, Sullivan said heroin is also often at the root of crimes such as burglary. Banks said addicts steal from family members to pay for their habits.
“I haven’t seen any property crimes that come back to anything but drugs. It's opiates: pills or heroin. I think it’s a year-round thing in Sussex County,” Sullivan said.
“There is a nexus to what we call crimes of opportunity,” Shavack said. “Burglaries, vehicle break-ins, street properties. With heroin, it’s a quick shot, and you’re looking for your next hit. You’re going out and breaking into these cars. Or breaking into houses.”
Delaware State Police monitor pawn shops where stolen merchandise can quickly be exchanged for cash to buy heroin.
Banks said this year, Rehoboth police are seeing as many heroin cases as marijuana cases. In the hierarchy of street drugs, Shavack said marijuana is still king, with cocaine/crack second and heroin third, but rising rapidly.
Sullivan said as prescription pills have become more regulated and harder to come by, heroin has filled the void because it is cheaper and can be purchased in large quantities. Shavack called it a case of supply and demand.
For $40, he said, “I can get eight hits of heroin and use all eight at one time, where I can only get one hit of oxycodone."
John Hamrick, spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Agency's Philadelphia office, said addicts who were hooked on prescription pills have switched to heroin because it is cheaper and gives a quicker high.
Heroin can be injected, the most popular method, Shavack said, or snorted. Banks said usually tell-tale signs of addiction are thin appearance, rotting teeth and needle track marks or sniffling, for people who snort.
Where it comes from
Heroin flows from Mexico and Afghanistan into major cities then into Delaware, Shavack said. Much of the heroin in Delaware goes through Wilmington, given the city’s location close to Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York and the Port of Wilmington, Shavack said. From there, the drug filters down into the southern counties.
Hamrick said generally, the heroin on the street now originated in South America and is distributed through Mexican drug organizations. The product comes through cities such as Phoenix, Chicago and New York, via tractor-trailer or car or smuggled in by people on commercial flights.
Philadelphia serves as the major distribution point; drugs flow from there into Scranton, Allentown, Baltimore and Delaware, Hamrick said.
Heroin’s resurgence is largely a matter of price; Shavack said in Wilmington, a bag costs about $5, increasing to $10 or $15 further away from the source in Kent and Sussex. The price rises the further the sale is from Wilmington because of the risks dealers take to move the product.
“Once you’re mobile, you’re vulnerable,” he said. “That’s where the biggest risk of drug dealing comes is when you’re mobile.”
Heroin affects all areas and age groups, although it is primarily amongst young people, Shavack said.
“There are no socio-economic boundaries to heroin,” he said. “We see it the affluent neighborhoods, we see it in the suburbs and we see it in the cities. We see it with kids 18 to 25 predominantly. It’s bad.”
To fight the tide of heroin, Shavack said Delaware State Police have begun targeting mid-level dealers, in the hopes of choking off the supply from surrounding major cities.
“It’s a battle,” Shavack said.
Treatment center quietly opens on Forgotten Mile
People busted for heroin, or crimes related to scoring the drug, often admit they have a problem.
“Most of the time, they’re very honest about it when confronted," said Rehoboth Beach Detective William Sullivan. "You ask them, ‘Why are you doing these things,’ and they say there’s an addiction problem. A lot of them that I have come in contact with want help.”
AMS addiction treatment services opened two years ago on Route 1 on the Forgotten Mile, between Rehoboth Beach and Dewey, to help addicts get treatment.
Richard Ruby, executive director of AMS, said the company did a statistical analysis of Delaware to determine where pockets of heroin and substance abusers were located and could use additional treatment options.
“There was a need for addiction treatment here in Sussex County,” Ruby said.
Marc Richman, state assistant director for community mental health and addiction services, said Rehoboth Beach and the surrounding areas see a lot of drug traffic because of the transient population.
“We know there is a significant problem with heroin and prescription abuse in the beach area,” Richman said. “There is significant partying. In addition, people receiving treatment elsewhere in the state that go to Rehoboth for vacation can get their methadone on vacation.”
Since opening, AMS has served 459 patients, Ruby said. During the first year, most of those patients were prescription drug users; over the past year, the number of heroin users has spiked, he said.
Amy Leonard, a counselor at AMS in Rehoboth, said she has seen an influx of heroin patients since the federal and state crackdown on prescription drugs began. In addition to counseling, AMS offers medication-assisted treatment using Suboxone, subutex or methadone.
“It is all based on the best path for the patient,” said Erin Kelly, AMS clinical supervisor. “People think that it's replacing one drug for another, but it's the same as treating diabetes with insulin. As long as patients aren't abusing their medicine, they are able to regain stability and wean off drugs to become free of any chemical.”
“Heroin is a big problem everywhere,” Leonard said. “It's a whole culture, which is part of the struggle. The patient not only has to get off heroin; it can also mean changing their friends, where they live – those are all triggers. They have to disrupt those things and start building new groups.”
Leonard said it takes three to six months to stabilize a drug user. Then the real treatment and counseling can start.
“We have to eliminate the access to the drug, then we have to use medication to stop the mental craving,” Leonard said. “The medication also blocks the feeling users get when they try to use the drug again.”
Once the patient is stable, AMS starts to focus on personal goals such as finding quality housing, going back to school or getting a job.
“We want to get them back engaged in activities that make them feel good about themselves,” Leonard said.
Delaware Health and Social Services Secretary Rita Landgraf said she is working with state budget officials to finance new 15-bed detox facilities in each county that could be open by September.
Landgraf said a stigma of trading one drug for another exists, but methadone and similar drugs are the only way for many patients to exit the drug culture.
“If you have a patient who is a heroin addict, that addiction is very strong, and it is very difficult for them to go cold turkey,” Landgraf said. “I think we need to provide a variety of treatment options to work on an individual basis to decide what is in the best need of the patient.”
Heroin addiction rewires the brain to make a person feel like they aren't chemically balanced unless they are on the drug, Landgraf said.
In Georgetown, Kirkwood offers a drug detox program that allows patients to live in the facility while they get off drugs. Patients discharged from that program often go to an outpatient service such as AMS to continue treatment.
AMS gives preference to drug users who are pregnant or HIV positive or those transitioning from an inpatient center or detox program because those patients are considered at higher risk.
“We don't want there to be a lapse in care because that's when they could go back to using,” Leonard said. “When patients come in and say, 'my life is normal,' that's what we live for.”
The AMS building is at 20468 Coastal Highway, Suite 101, Rehoboth Beach. For information, call 302-227-1320.