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If 100 people in our community had been killed during carjackings or bank robberies or even drug deals over the past 18 months, there would be a huge public outcry. But in that same period of time, we have seen more than 100 deaths from heroin overdoses, with little public awareness.

This is not your grandma’s heroin. It is highly pure and deadly. Heroin did not disappear with the 1960’s as so many assume. From a low of 17 in 2010, heroin overdose deaths skyrocketed in Jefferson, Shelby and Tuscaloosa Counties during 2011 to 44, and in 2012 to 83. Local, state, and federal law enforcement met and began aggressive efforts to address the sources of heroin in North Alabama during 2012. But the numbers of deaths are far too high and the toll of the addiction is relentless. More than 100 overdose deaths occurred in the three-county area from January of 2012 through August 2013. Hoover Police Chief Nick Derzis believes the number might be twice as high without the life-saving drug, Narcan,that EMTs carry and administer on site in overdose cases.

The demographic for heroin use is: your children. This is not someone else’s problem. The reality is that this highly addictive drug is sweeping through 17- to 25-year-olds at an alarming rate, and it is as likely to affect your straight-A student or football player as it is the child you think of as a more likely user. The path to addiction is through prescription drugs. High school children raid accessible medicine cabinets – often their parents' or grandparents' – for prescription drugs, which, in the past decade, have overtaken marijuana and cocaine as the most abused drugs. This spirals into Oxycontin abuse. Oxycontin is a narcotic painkiller, a semi-synthetic opioid. It is expensive and Grandpa’s supply is finite. Heroin, however, is relatively cheap and the high is as strong as, if not stronger than, Oxycontin. So our children make the shift. They may snort heroin or smoke it the first few times, but the needs of an addict ultimately demand that they inject it.

The demographic for heroin use is: Your children.

And that is how many of the overdose victims in our community have been found, with a needle in the arm. The 58 people who died from heroin overdose in Jefferson County in 2012 were between the ages of 17 and 65, with the majority -- 37 -- in their 20s and 30s.

On Aug. 23, during a briefing for law enforcement on the progress in attacking the supply of heroin in North Alabama, DEA agents played a video for the assembled group. The video was grainy camera phone footage showing a young man who has just injected himself and still holds the needle in his hand. Squatting down in a doorframe, he rocks back and forth with his eyes closed. The next photo was of the same young man, dead moments later.

Although law enforcement officers are used to the worst kind of images, this one was almost too painful to bear. Heroin is killing our children before our eyes.

Last week we arrested almost 50 heroin dealers. And during the past two years we have seized more than 5 kilograms of heroin and kept it off the streets of Birmingham, of Shelby County, of Tuscaloosa. We will continue to vigilantly track down suppliers of heroin. But while law enforcement can interdict some of the supply, our communities must educate and arm themselves to protect our children.

We need a community-wide effort among educators, parents, medical workers to help those who are addicted, along with the work of law enforcement to attack the supply. We must have awareness of the widespread heroin epidemic and the signs of addiction so that treatment can be obtained before an overdose occurs.

It is difficult to come to grips with the addiction problem of a friend, a co-worker or a family member. But it is easier to walk your child into a rehab center, with hope for another chance at a long and full life, than it is to say goodbye, forever, over a casket.

Joyce White Vance is the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, and the mother of four children. The heroin problem our community faces resonates with her both professionally and as a parent. Vance can be contacted by e-mail at peggy.sanford@usdoj.gov.

Published: September 22, 2013 at 7:30 AM
Updated September 22, 2013 at 7:36 AM

By Special to AL.com al.com

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