The drug epi­demic: Where do we go from here?

Kent County News - - FRONT PAGE - By TR­ISH MCGEE pm­cgee@thekent­coun­tynews.com

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.

PHOTO BY LEANN SCHENKE

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.

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