The lethal strain of heroin being sold on the streets of Essex County took at least two-dozen lives last year, and it is a poison that doesn't discriminate. Young and old, men and women, have all fallen victim to this deadly, highly addictive drug.

Heroin is cheaper than a six-pack of beer, and despite law enforcement's best efforts, easily obtainable. And now that it can be snorted instead of injected with a needle, there is a sense among users that it is more acceptable, and will be neither deadly nor addictive.

They couldn't be more wrong.

According to local authorities, heroin in this region, which primarily comes from South America and is distributed by highly organized crime organizations, ranges anywhere from 70 to 95 percent pure. Its dangerous potency can be clearly illustrated by two of the most recent overdose deaths in Essex County - in each case, investigators determined that it was probably the first time either victim had used heroin.

One of the most distressing trends police have observed is the increased use of heroin among teenagers.

That's why it's crucial for law enforcement to do its job, for treatment options to be available, and for schools to educate children at a young age about the dangers of heroin. But perhaps most important, parents need to talk with and listen to their children. Parents have a special responsibility to know, or if need be, find out, what their kids are doing.

It may be cliché, but it's something I truly believe: It all starts at the dinner table. We need to let our children know how precious they are to us, give them the best, most informed guidance we can, and provide them with the tools to make good decisions in their lives.

Anyone thinking about using heroin should think about this:

* Heroin can kill, even after one use.
* Massachusetts has some of the most deadly heroin in the country.
* It's highly addictive, whether it's snorted or injected.
* When heroin is injected, users run a greater risk of getting HIV/AIDS.
* If heroin does not kill you, your only other two options are jail, or a lifetime addiction.
* Most certainly, you will lose everything dear to you.

Just as heroin doesn't discriminate as to the lives it claims, the problem isn't limited to urban centers. While there were 15 overdose deaths in Lynn last year and 92 non-lethal overdoses, it's important to note that some people who overdosed in Lynn were actually from surrounding communities - they just couldn't wait to get their fix, so they shot up or ingested the drug in that city.

It's also a fact that dozens more lives were saved by emergency and medical personnel using the drug Narcan, which counteracts the effects of heroin. Otherwise, the death toll would have been staggering.

On a final, cautionary note, we have witnessed people of all ages become addicted to drugs such as Percocet or Oxycontin, then opt for the much cheaper heroin. Even if the drugs were prescribed, great care must be taken to ensure that dependencies do not take form, and assistance is obtained if necessary.

Law enforcement must continue to relentlessly arrest and prosecute those who would spread this poison in our neighborhoods.

Treatment centers must be adequately funded to help addicts break free of this highly addictive drug.

Educators and parents must teach, listen, and help their children make the right choices in their lives.

Heroin is cheap, but its cost is not measured in dollars.

It is measured in lives.