The drug epidemic: Where do we go from here?
CHESTERTOWN — While the Kent Goes Purple public awareness campaign wraps up at the end of the month, the battle against substance abuse is ongoing.
It’s no longer a war on drugs, with all addicts identified as bad people who need to be punished.
There has been a philosophical shift, at least locally, with education and treatment being embraced as better options for a community that is combating illicit drug use.
Three years ago, Kent County launched a drug court. It goes by the acronym PAST — Post Adjudication Supervision and Treatment, a post-plea alternative to standard probationary supervision that involves local prosecutors, judges, addictions counselors and the health department.
“Incarceration is not going to work. We have to solve the root cause of the problem of addiction,” District Court Judge John E. Nunn III said in an October 2015 interview shortly after PAST was introduced.
He said it was time for a new approach, one that emphasized treatment. “I think it’s the only way we can solve this problem,” he said.
PAST provides closer supervision for those who are enrolled in the program. There are weekly check-ins to start, and the intensity of treatment — such as mental health therapy, urine tests and attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings — may be modified based on achievements or missteps.
It allows for earlier intervention if someone slips. The PAST program operates in both circuit court and district court.
Typically there are about 20 people in the program at any one time, but that number varies depending on successful completions and unsuccessful terminations.
Currently there are 13 active participants, Circuit Court Judge Harris P. Murphy reported Monday.
Murphy was the state’s attorney in 2015 and played a key role in the establishment of the PAST program. He was one of its earliest champions and remains a tireless advocate.
“The program has proven to be an extremely successful alternative to incarceration and/or standard probation. It provides additional supervision and support for appropriate individuals who are sincere about attempting to address their substance abuse issues,” Murphy wrote in an email Monday.
Overall there have been 15 successful completions and 11 terminations, according to data provided by
Murphy. Another 11 individuals have been assessed but were not accepted into the program, he said.
Individuals who pass an initial screening by the Office of the Kent County State’s Attorney are then evaluated by the Kent County Health Department before they are accepted as qualified candidates.
The PAST program reflects a change in how the legal community approaches drug abuse.
“We’re treating it as a health problem,” Murphy said.
Prevention begins with education, said peer recovery specialist Rani Gutting, a member of the county’s Opioid Intervention Team.
Gutting said “education needs to start early and the message needs to be age appropriate,” she wrote in an email Tuesday.
Elementary school is not too early to start introducing the conversation about how to advocate for yourself and how to say “no.”
Gutting said the drug and alcohol education programs need to emphasize the consequences of a life of substance abuse.
She believes “having exposure to people who have been there, experienced the devastation and casualties associated with substance use can be an effective method.”
Gutting also advocates for mental health care in schools — and not just the availability of mental health care, but integrating it into the curriculum.
“Mental health and substance use almost always associate with one another. Children need to understand how to care for themselves in all aspects. It should be as important as the school breakfast program,” Gutting said.
She regularly attends the monthly Local Drug and Alcohol Abuse Council meetings, along with judges Nunn and Murphy, Health Officer Dr. Leland Spencer, Kent County Detention Center Warden Herb Dennis, Sheriff John Price, Chestertown Police Chief Adrian Baker, Capt. Bill Dempsey of the Rock Hall Police Department and representatives from the school district, juvenile services and social services — an acknowledgment that the battle against substance abuse, now at epidemic proportions, is a burden shared by many.
Billboard-sized awareness signs in Chestertown, Rock Hall and Millington, updated monthly, show the number of overdoses and deaths in the county.
According to a spreadsheet made available at the Sept. 5 LDAAC meeting, this year there have been 36 reported opioid overdoses through August. Most of those, 21, were Chestertown residents — though a total of six Kent County jurisdictions, identified by their ZIP codes, have had at least one reported overdose in 2018.
Those overdosing range in age from 21 to 74, with the average age rising to 42. Three of the people who overdosed in August were over the age of 50, said Charlene Perry, R.N., who collects the data for the Kent County Health Department.
Most of the reported OD victims this year are men, by a 27-9 margin.
Kent County is doing a better job of admitting there is a drug problem. It’s no longer the proverbial “dirty little secret.” The county has a mobile trailer of a mock teenager’s bedroom that contains items of drug paraphernalia and other indicators of drug use and the Chestertown Elks have a substance abuse awareness trailer.
There are never enough treatment beds, but state funding has assisted the A.F. Whitsitt Center in Chestertown in expanding its services, including detoxification spots.
Gutting said there are several challenges facing recovery and one “glaring” challenge is the amount of time an individual spends in a rehabilitation center.
The length of stay of 21 days isn’t nearly long enough, she said.
“Access to rehabilitation is incredibly challenging. Most privately run centers don’t take Medicaid and the centers who do have waiting lists of sometimes two and three weeks. These are challenges. Even our IOP (Intensive Outpatient Program) have waiting lists for appointments that can be two weeks or more. This is incredibly challenging for people who are facing a disease that needs daily maintenance,” Gutting wrote in Tuesday’s email.
But she believes change for the better is on the horizon.
“The good news is we have more and more exposure with more education and the state of Maryland is clearly dedicated to making changes under Clay Stamp, executive director of the Opioid Operational Command Center,” Gutting said.
She expressed gratitude to the Kent County Sheriff’s Office and the Chestertown Rotary Club for sponsoring and organizing Kent Goes Purple.
“This type of community initiative creates involvement, educates, builds awareness and in turn reduces the stigma associated with substance use, initiates conversation, and ultimately helps to change and in some cases save lives,” Gutting said in her email.
Rani Gutting, a peer recovery specialist with the Kent County Health Department, speaks about her experiences with addiction during a candlelight memorial service held on International Overdose Awareness Day Aug. 31.