When Cocaine Nightline, a telephone referral service for addicts, opened at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda last month, most of the calls came from people who had lost their jobs, friends and family and who needed treatment.
But since the cocaine-induced death last week of University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias, the calls have taken on a more urgent tone, as casual users and hard-core addicts alike realize that the drug they considered safe can kill with frightening swiftness.
"We've been getting a lot of calls from the 18- to 29-year-old users because of Len Bias," said program coordinator Mary McKeon. "A lot of them think they are invulnerable because of their age and the Bias story has shaken them up."
"They want to know what the possibilities are that they will die taking cocaine," McKeon continued. "One woman said her hand was turning blue since she started using cocaine. I told her to get to a hospital."
McKeon said that since Bias' death the volume of calls has doubled from 15 to 30 a night. Tuesday night, after news broke that cocaine was directly responsible, the hot line received 42 calls.
About 30 volunteers, most of whom are recovering cocaine addicts, spend at least three hours a week staffing the hot line, the only privately run service of its kind in the Washington area for cocaine addicts.
One of those volunteers, Ronnie, 28, spent five minutes on the phone Tuesday night with a a man who said his life was "falling apart" because he had been using cocaine for the last nine months and he was about to be fired from his job.
"How long have you been using?" Ronnie asked. "Just coke, no alcohol? What part of town are you from? Tell me a little about your life. No, don't worry. It's not too late if you're alive to make this phone call."
Later, Ronnie said the caller thought there was some kind of antidote that would stop him from wanting cocaine. "Like most addicts, he just wants to stop hurting," Ronnie said.
Officials estimate there are 50,000 cases of cocaine addiction in Maryland. That number is believed to be increasing rapidly as cheaper and more potent forms of the drug -- once considered a high-priced luxury for the upper class -- have become acessible to larger segments of the population.
Scott McMillin, director of the hospital's addiction treatment center, said he decided to start the hot line because cocaine dependency is one of the most insidious addictions of any popular street drug, and is unrivaled in its ability to quickly turn a one-time user into an addict.
"My motive for opening Nightline is for the next wave of addicts," he said. "The first wave was the yuppies. The next wave is going to be the 13- to 18-year-olds because now for five or 10 bucks they can buy the most addictive forms of cocaine, like crack, and as soon as they start smoking they become major addicts."
McKeon said about half the 655 calls they've received so far are from admitted addicts, and about 33 percent are from people who have noticed drastic personality changes in a friend or relative, and suspect cocaine addiction.
She said 60 percent of the callers are men, and slightly over 40 percent of those seeking help are from the District.
About 22 percent of the calls originate from Montgomery County, 23 percent from Prince George's County and 9 percent from Northern Virginia.
The recovering addicts who work the phones believe helping other addicts is an important step in rebuilding their own lives.
"The thought of dying never used to bother me," said Ronnie, who works for the Cocaine Nightline once a week between group therapy sessions. "I used to go to sleep and wouldn't care if I woke up in the morning. Now my life is the most important thing in the world to me."
The hot line operates out of a room in the hospital with barely enough space for three simple wooden desks, chairs and a coffeepot.
The victories for the volunteers, measured only in the number of referrals made each night, are fleeting and rare.
Most of the callers are never heard from again, and the volunteers said they only hope they have propelled those in need of treatment down a path of recovery.
For the first half of Tuesday's six-hour shift the phones hardly rang, and by 9 p.m. the volunteers had taken only a dozen calls.
But shortly after a television news report about Bias' death mentioned the Nightline number, the calls picked up and didn't stop until midnight.
Volunteers usually talked to callers for about five minutes, and then referred them to the closest treatment facility in their area.
McMillin said he believes that for every addict who calls the Nightline, there are 100 more who don't. "We are like little kids with our fingers in the dike," he said.
The number for the Nightline is 493-4100.