Recovering heroin addict Conner Ostrowski grew up in what his mother calls a “stereotypical suburban household” in Anne Arundel County.
The former Linthicum resident is part of a close-knit family. He excelled in academics and athletics, consistently making the honor roll and wrestling for North County High School. And he dreamed of one day becoming a disc jockey and sound and lighting expert.
But four years ago, when Conner was 16, he injured his back during a wrestling match. Soon after, and without his parents’ knowledge, someone shared a prescription pain pill with him. That’s when his descent into heroin addiction began.
“It was one pill,” says his mother, Andrea Wildason. “That’s the danger. He took that pill and it was like magic.”
Within two years, Conner went from popping Percocet to injecting heroin, four to six times a day.
Local leaders say addictions like Conner’s are becoming all too common in Maryland, where the heroin epidemic is reaching record levels.
Heroin is everywhere
According to the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, 578 people died from heroin-related deaths in 2014 – up 25 percent from 2013 and more than double the number in 2010. While the majority of those who died were ages 25 to 54, more than 50 of the total deaths were those younger than 25.
“This thing is growing at an extremely rapid rate and killing people at a high rate of speed,” says Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh. “Heroin is plentiful and cheap and available everywhere.”
More and more, parents say teenagers like Conner are turning to the drug after using opioid pain medications.
“It’s a huge epidemic in the state of Maryland because it’s cheaper to get heroin (than pills),” says Ginger Rosela of St. Leondard, whose son, Jake, died of a heroin overdose in 2013.
“Teenagers don’t recognize the dangers of these drugs,” Schuh says. “They think they can just casually use these compounds and not become addicted, but they can’t.”
In Anne Arundel County, 53 people died from heroin-related deaths and 32 from prescription opioid-related deaths in 2014.
To combat the problem, parents and leaders are forming anti-heroin task forces, holding regional summits and dedicating money and resources toward addiction treatment.
But they say the first step is educating parents about how widespread the epidemic is, why teens are getting hooked and where to go for help.
How the addiction starts
Opioid-based medications like hydrocodone, found in Vicodin, and oxycodone, found in Percocet, are powerful drugs prescribed for people dealing with acute or long-term pain, says Michael Kidorf, associate director of Addiction Treatment Services at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.
The medications cause physical dependence and have high abuse potential, he says. Physical dependence progresses to addiction when a doctor stops prescribing the medication and the user then seeks the drug elsewhere, such as another doctor or a family member, he says.
“A large percentage of folks enter the portal to opioid addiction through pills,” says Tim Altomare, Anne Arundel County Chief of Police. “There’s kids in every high school in our county that are addicted to opioids in some way, shape or form.”
Those who have a family history of addiction; a previous addiction to drugs like marijuana; or mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety or mood disorders, are more at risk for opioid addiction, Kidorf says.
Conner experienced anxiety as a teen. Alcoholism also runs in his family.
When Conner injured his back, Wildason was “adamant that he not have pain medication,” she says. She sought relief for her son through non-opioid medications, acupuncture, chiropractic care and physical therapy.
But the drugs still found their way into his hands, she says.
Jake Paddy began using opioid pain medications at age 15 after surgery related to a bicycle wreck, says his mother, Ginger Rosela.
“I had no idea that this was possibly the start of the end,” Rosela says.
Jake, a compassionate teen known for his love of animals, battled addiction to pain pills for years before dying of a heroin overdose in 2013 at the age of 23.
While teens like Conner and Jacob began using drugs to treat physical pain, others use them to escape academic, sexual and social pressures, says Joan Webb Scornaienchi, executive director of HC Drug Free, a nonprofit organization that works to prevent substance abuse among Howard County youth.
During the 2012-13 school year, HC DrugFree held 11 youth focus groups with Howard County high school students. When asked why students use drugs, group members resoundingly said, “To feel numb,” Scornaienchi says.
And teens say they don’t have to travel far to buy pills like Percocet, saying the drugs are readily available in their communities and even inside their schools.
“Teens say they can get anything they want, anytime they want,” Scornaienchi says.
Once the pain pills run out, it’s an easy leap to heroin, Conner says.
“Heroin is stronger and cheaper than a prescription pain killer,” he says. “A 15 mg Percocet costs $20 to $25 and will get you high for one to two hours if you snort it. For $30 of heroin, you shoot it and get a stronger high for four or five hours.”
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