Bad trip

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And George Malina, the man whose anguished call for justice helped bring it all about, isn't happy.

"For us, there is no satisfaction," says Malina, seated on the sofa in his airy North Dallas home. "In fact, I'm writing a letter on behalf of [Chris Cooper], asking the judge to give him probation."

Malina isn't alone. Most families of the dead are asking U.S. District Judge Richard A. Schell not to send one or more of those found responsible to prison. Slowly, reluctantly, painfully, they have concluded that turning users into federal inmates is at best misguided policy. Some feel that the retribution and rhetoric used in the drug war are barbaric; others feel that warehousing addicts does little to solve the problem of addiction even as it provides the public with a false sense of security. Still others know that, had the fates been just a little kinder, their own dead children could be the ones facing federal time.

"The problem isn't them, the people they prosecuted," Malina explains. "The problem is the [drug] policy." Based on what they have observed over the last two years, Malina and his wife are no believers in drug interdiction, especially the newest, latest tough-on-drug laws used on their behalf. They've formed a nascent foundation hoping to help reform what they call "medieval" drug laws, as well as to provide treatment and counseling.

"These kids are sick," George Malina explains. "They have a medical problem. And instead of helping them, we label them criminals and drive them further underground."

By the time Milan Michael Malina died, an epidemic was well under way, yet the good people of Plano hardly knew it. It started in the early '90s, as scientists at the National Institutes of Health began to notice the numbers measuring heroin abuse creep up nationwide. At first, the increases were among youth reporting they had tried it; by the mid-'90s came hospital reports of a growing number of overdoses. And for the first time in recent history, the increases were not only in inner-city hospitals, but in suburban ones.

Still, for the most part, these reports were from far away: Seattle. Baltimore. Not North Texas, and certainly not Plano. "You've got to understand, in Plano, over the last decade, roughly '84-'95, we'd only dealt with 14 cases of heroin," says Bruce Glasscock, Plano's police chief. And those, Glasscock says, were just "street cases"--possession, not overdoses.

However, Glasscock says that beginning in late '95, Plano police began seeing "preliminary indications of heroin use."

"The first indication we saw was, our burglary detectives started detecting suspects coming in who were using heroin," he recalls. Though there may have been few arrests, state and county health officials say that heroin deaths were not exactly unknown in Collin County. Between 1987 and December 1995, the Collin County medical examiner recalls seeing at least eight heroin-overdose deaths. According to the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, an average of three Collin County residents died of heroin overdoses each year between 1987 and 1995. For the most part, though, the victims were junkies in their late 30s, and their deaths received little notice.

But in 1994, the ages of the dead began to plummet: 27, 18, 21. In 1996, the heroin dead averaged 18 years old. Still, Glasscock recalls, "the deaths...were spread out such that, you know, no patterns really started jumping out. No one was panicking; that came much later, in the fall of '97, followed quickly by the media, everyone from Newsweek to MTV pursuing tales of teenage suburban junkies. During the first eight months of 1997, the county would average more than one heroin death a month. The median victim's age was 21; the youngest was 15.

George and Joanne Malina never expected heroin to follow them to Plano. "We didn't want to raise kids in New York," recalls George Malina, who was raised in Brooklyn. Joanne was reared in Harlem and had walked past shooting galleries on her way to school. Both were the offspring of blue-collar families, and they came to Texas in search of opportunity, safe neighborhoods, and good schools. Since arriving in the mid-'70s, Malina has been in businesses varying from real estate to vitamins, diamonds to delis. Currently he works as an "international financial consultant."

"I want to share something with you," says Joanne, pulling out a brown 3-by-5 photo album. As her visitor leafs through the photos, she provides a narrative: There's Milan as a wrinkled, red-faced newborn; there, as a cute brown-headed kid with a Beatles-style haircut, posing with his two older brothers, David and George, in front of the Parthenon. A few pages later, he's a gawky adolescent; then, suddenly, a darkly handsome teen.

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Christine Biederman