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When heroin touches an entire town

With its gated communities, leafy parks, and Fortune 500 jobs, Plano is not the sort of town to have a big-city drug problem.

At least, that's what most residents thought. Then in 1997, some of the young people of Plano discovered the "latest craze" - heroin - and started overdosing at the rate of one a month. The youngest victim was seventh-grader Victor Garcia. The oldest, and most famous, was former Dallas Cowboy Mark Tuinei.

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The string of deaths - 18 in Plano, along with half a dozen from nearby towns - does not appear to be over. Even after police busted a major drug ring last summer, three Plano residents have died of heroin overdoses since May.

"In my opinion, the problem hasn't gone away. We're still getting heroin deaths," says William Rohr, the coroner for Collin County, which includes Plano. "In fact, it's kind of picked up again."

That a town like Plano can have problems with a drug like heroin should put many other picket-fenced Pleasantvilles on notice. Upscale areas like suburban Baltimore, Morris County, N.J., and Orlando, Fla., have all been home to a burgeoning heroin trade.

Youthful ignorance and parental naivet - along with the combination of wealth and the drug's accessibility - are among the causes bringing hard-core drugs to the suburbs in greater numbers, with tragic results.

Between 1990 and 1995, the number of heroin-related deaths in the US jumped 134 percent, from 1,976 to 4,625. And among youths, drug use, heroin included, has been rising steadily - to 1 in 4 high school seniors in 1998, up from 1 in 6 in 1992.

But the struggle of suburbia to deal with big-city drugs has made Plano an unlikely test kitchen of ideas for how to fight the drug war at home.

"There's a shock value to it when heroin deaths spike up in a town like Plano," says Robert Stewart, an analyst at the nonpartisan Drug Policy Foundation in Washington. Statistically, white middle-class Americans rank among the highest users of illegal drugs, he adds, but they're "not what you expect the typical drug addict to look like on the 6 o'clock news."

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In some ways, Plano's affluence may have been a cause of, rather than a protection from, a big-city drug problem. In addition, like many towns in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Plano is within 10 miles of Interstate 35, a highway that extends from Laredo, Texas, to the Canadian border, carrying everything from widgets to narcotics.

Even so, Plano parent Andrea Hill had no idea about the growth of the heroin trade, or how easy it was for her son to obtain some. All she knew was that Rob was the kind of garrulous high school senior who played soccer because he was good, and football because of the cheerleaders. In August 1997, just a few weeks before he was to leave for college, Rob tried some heroin at a party. He died that night of an overdose.

"What do you really know about your child when he's not around you?" says Mrs. Hill in the special-education classroom where she teaches in Richardson. Around her neck, she wears a locket with a picture of her son. "Don't mind me," she says, as tears stream down her face. "I cry most days."

Hill believes parents must take a strong role in protecting their children. Not only does she believe parents should educate their children about drugs, but recommends conducting regular drug tests on them. Drug tests may sound harsh, she admits, but "you can't undo death. Everything else you can work with."

Many of the kids taking heroin didn't even know they were using it, says Carl Duke, spokesman for the Plano Police Department. "Early on, the drug was called 'chiva,' so our undercover officers would ask teens about heroin, and the kids would say, 'I don't do heroin. I do chiva.' " He sighs. "To them, it was a designer drug."

Designer or not, chiva turned out to be black-tar opium mixed with an over-the-counter antihistamine. After the federal-state task force broke open Plano's drug ring in the summer of 1998, Officer Duke was not among those celebrating victory. "We put some people behind bars, but there's always people wanting to take their place."

To combat the ignorance of teens and the naivet of parents, Plano began a series of drug-awareness campaigns, and opened up alternative services for teens, including free concerts, cable-access programs, and a youth hot line.

"It really is a war, but the bottom line is that it starts with the family, the church, and the community," says Rick Neudorff, Plano's deputy mayor pro tem. "You have to stay attuned with what children are doing. If each family did that, then the law-enforcement job would be a lot easier."

For parent George Malina, it's government officials and not parents who shoulder the blame for Plano's string of heroin deaths. Mr. Malina was the parent who called the FBI in the summer of 1997, after local police declined to find the source of the heroin that killed his 20-year-old son, Milan. (A police report listed Milan as "both a victim and a perpetrator.") As a result of Malina's call, a joint federal-state task force eventually cracked open a massive 29-person drug ring in Plano last summer.

But Malina is hardly elated by the success. He warns that declaring victory too soon might have the unintended effect of taking parents and teens off their guard about drugs. And he wants the US to shift more of its resources into drug treatment and rehabilitation, and away from building prisons.

"Putting them in jail doesn't work," says Malina. "This is a mental-health problem."

Whatever the nature of the problem, it is certainly not restricted to Plano.

Twenty miles west of Plano, in the Fort Worth suburb of Bedford, a college-age girl named Amber got hooked on heroin through her boyfriend.

The two used to buy their drugs - $10 capsules of heroin were called "boys," and $10 caps of cocaine were called "girls" - in south Fort Worth.

Amber, who has been drug-free for four months and asked that her last name not be used, says she knew using heroin was dangerous. During her four month as an addict, she lost her job, her car, even her daughter's baby pictures. (Her daughter is being raised by her parents.) But "as an addict, you don't care," she says. "You're doing it just to get up in the morning."

In his spacious home in a southern suburb of Dallas, Walter Mickels says Plano has gotten all the attention, but heroin permeates every corner of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. It's a fact he knows well. His 19-year-old son died of a heroin overdose at a party held at the University of North Texas in Denton.

"I admit he made a choice, and it was a bad choice," says Mr. Mickels. "But the availability of heroin is the reason kids try it. It's not because kids have family problems. It's not because life is so crazy. It's available."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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