Charles County, MD – It’s often been called the monkey on your back. And the monkey can kill you.

Heroin has reached a new epoch in the drug community. More and more cases sift through the Charles County court system each year.

Those who aren’t placed in treatment or refuse to go can face a punishment far greater through abuse than the courts can ever impose: In the past four years, the number of deaths in the state of Maryland attributed to opiate abuse—especially heroin—have more than doubled.

A case in point is the sad story of a local 36-year-old man who passed away last month due to a heroin overdose.

In the past several years the man fell into Oxycodone abuse. Then, when he couldn’t get the pills anymore he began stealing, from first one parent, then the other. He robbed a liquor store.

More than once the young man was court ordered into treatment and each time upon his release, reverted back to opiate abuse.

His father, who was on serious pain meds for a severe medical condition, would find his medicine missing. The family believed the son came by when his father was asleep and stole his entire month’s supply of pills. While the father suffered withdrawal and debilitating pain, his son was getting high at his expense.

On one occasion the son had a friend pick up his father’s prescriptions from the pharmacy, again, not only denying his father the medication he desperately needed, but selfishly used himself, while turning a profit at his father’s expense. The father sadly told his son he was not allowed in his house,

When the son could no longer get the pills, he turned to heroin.

His father died this past March of heart complications. The son followed in July, overdosing on heroin.

“We always have heroin as a high increase,” said Jude House Executive Director Mary Lynn Logsdon. “It’s always been high.”

She said since the residential treatment center opened 26 years ago, opiates make up 80 percent of their case load.

“What’s different now is, we’re seeing patients coming from prescription pills going to heroin because it’s so cheap,” Logsdon said. “Before, only 30 percent were straight heroin users. Then they started with prescription opiates and moved to heroin. They couldn’t get the pills anymore, their prescription ran out or they couldn’t afford them.”

She said a recent policy decision by the medical community to move away from the rampant dispensation of pain medications into pain management has helped fuel the fire. Even if they can get their prescription filled, patients have to go through insurance, they have to be monitored every 30 days, it becomes easier to turn to alternatives, even though they are illegal, she noted.

“After they’ve been on them so long, chronic pain users plateau at every level with pain killers,” Logsdon stated. “You have to follow that up with pain management. It’s more time, more effort to be in the program. It’s easier to swap to heroin.

“The flip side is, you have people getting 10,000 pills at one time with no oversight,” she added.

“In the previous decades, we’ve gone through different drugs,” explained Bill Leebel, public information officer for the Charles County Health Department. “We went through the 70s with cocaine, the 80s with crack. It kind of took a break, but in the past 10 years or so, it started with the prescription pain killers, where the kids would raid the grandparent’s medicine cabinets to find Percocet. That’s highly addictive.

“That’s the first drug of choice, even today,” he said.

“Along with that, you have people who have leg pain, who are in a pain-control situation, looking for different types of alternatives. Heroin started to get cheaper than buying the prescription drugs legally,” Leebel stated.

About 10 years ago, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene required that health departments adopt an opiate overdose and addiction plan.

“We now have that,” he said. “Each county has that. I know Calvert and St. Mary’s do.”

University of Maryland Charles Regional Medical Center Emergency Director Rich Ferrano said at a July 27 event in La Plata with United States Senator Ben Cardin that opiate addiction has become an issue of extreme concern.

“The opiate addiction is partially created by the medical community,” he said. “The majority is from prescription medication use.”

Cardin agreed, calling the issue “a national crisis.”

“It’s such an epidemic,” Logsdon noted, adding the Jude House averages about 400 patients a year who are addicted to opiates.

“It certainly has increased significantly,” said Charles County State’s Attorney Tony Covington.

At the July 27 event with Cardin, Covington told the senator, “The state’s attorney’s office has come to realize folks who are non-violent who are involved in opiates, it’s a health issue, not necessarily a law enforcement issue.”

The state walks a razor edge with drug abuse in the courtroom, he noted.

“Look, if somebody presents as the user and is addicted, the best thing for them and best thing for the community is to help them get straight,” Covington stated. “If they’re just pretending, we really can’t help them. If folks are working, we’re trying to work with them.”

In a recent court case, a defendant told the judge, “If you hadn’t ordered me to get treatment, I probably would be dead.”

“I’ve heard that many times over the years,” Covington stressed. “The criminal justice system has a role to play,” he added. “Until we get the resources for a robust recovery system, not just through Charles County, but everywhere, all we can do is prosecute, especially if there is another crime involved.

“In the final analysis, it comes down to the person to get clean, and until that person makes that decision, sometimes, you can’t really help them,” he admitted.

“Everybody is a little different that’s ever been addicted to heroin,” Logsdon said. “We had one patient who had been through treatment and successfully finished the program. He had to get knee surgery and was prescribed Percocet. As soon as he couldn’t get that opiate, he went right back to heroin. Fortunately, he did the right thing and put himself back in treatment.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” she added. “When you’re in such chronic pain, there are not too many choices that don’t lead to addiction. Once you’ve had no pain on opiates, it’s very hard to teach your body to manage pain without them. Some turn to acupuncture and massage. It is possible, even with the worst heroin addict, but it takes a lot of hard work.”

The Jude House’s major problem is space, she said. They currently have 52 beds, 40 for men and 12 for women. She said they are hoping to expand to 80 beds in the next year.

Those ordered into treatment by the court system are often placed on a waiting list until a bed opens up. When asked what happens to them if they can’t get in the program, she responded, “They wait in jail for a bed to open.”

“It’s one of those things that is not going to go away easily,” Leebel noted. “It’s a process, and especially with substance abuse, a lot of it is the environment you came from. Once you clean up, if you go back to the same neighborhood, chances are you’re going to fall right back into the same old routine. With opiates, it almost requires a change of lifestyle for the person.”

That was exactly how it was for Kiera Ashley Brien, 29 of Waldorf, who faced sentencing in Charles County Circuit Court July 7 for a theft charge stemming from when she was addicted to heroin.

Brien told Judge H. James West, “I don’t know if I would be here if you had not held me on bond. I had to throw a lot of people out of my life.”

Charles County Assistant Public Defender Courtney Dixon told the court, “She has gone through the worst of the worst. She lost her kids, but she has moved into the second phase of recovery. She is doing better. At the time of her arrest, she was not. She was out doing things to hurt people, just feeding her addiction.”

Logsdon stressed that while heroin is a difficult addiction to overcome, through hope and programs like Carol Porto Center in Calvert and the Jude House in Bel Alton, patients can achieve miracles.

“We have a 98 percent success rate,” Logsdon said.

Contact Joseph Norris at

Chart courtesy of Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene