Try­ing to gain some ground against deadly drugs

Maryland Independent - - Community Forum -

Part of a new re­port from the state’s health depart­ment last week stated that more peo­ple in Mary­land die from drug over­doses than from car wrecks. Let that sink for in a mo­ment: Over­dose deaths out­num­ber au­to­mo­bile ac­ci­dent deaths — and by quite a bit. It’s be­yond se­ri­ous. It’s reached a cri­sis point.

That re­port re­vealed the num­ber of Mary­lan­ders who died from dru­gand al­co­hol-re­lated over­doses in 2016 reached an all-time high of 2,089, which was a 66 per­cent in­crease over the year be­fore. By com­par­i­son, the Mary­land State High­way Ad­min­is­tra­tion re­ported 523 high­way deaths in the state last year.

Gov. Larry Ho­gan (R) de­clared a state of emer­gency three months ago re­gard­ing the opi­oid epi­demic in Mary­land. He’s been push­ing a $50 mil­lion, five-year plan to fund pro­grams to sup­port law en­force­ment, as well as drug treat­ment and preven­tion ef­forts. He even shot a pub­lic ad­dress an­nounce­ment spot with one of the stars of TV’s “House of Cards” to get the mes­sage out there. It’s a many-faceted at­tack on this 21st-cen­tury plague.

It’s ter­ri­fy­ing. A few weeks back, a po­lice of­fi­cer in the Mid­west, end­ing a shift that had in­cluded a drug bust, brushed traces of a pow­der off his uni­form with the back of his hand. Mo­ments later, he was dis­play­ing all the symp­toms of an over­dose — be­cause the pow­der was fen­tanyl, the much more pow­er­ful syn­thetic cousin of heroin. Luck­ily, he was given a dose of the anti-over­dose drug nalox­one and has re­cov­ered.

Law of­fi­cers and first re­spon­ders na­tion­wide, and in our area, have be­gun treat­ing drug crime scenes where pow­dery sub­stances are found as haz­ardous ma­te­rial scenes. Field test­ing of sus­pected opi­oids in some places has been stopped out of con­cern for the safety of the of­fi­cers. Even the du­ties of drug-sniff­ing po­lice dogs are be­ing al­tered, since only a lit­tle fen­tanyl can go a long, deadly way.

In 2016 in South­ern Mary­land, there were 88 over­dose deaths — a nearly 50 per­cent in­crease over 2015. Charles County alone ac­counted for 45 of those deaths, more than dou­bling its to­tal from the year be­fore. Calvert County reg­is­tered 28 over­dose deaths, up eight from 2015.

St. Mary’s was one of only three ju­ris­dic­tions statewide (along with Gar­rett and Ce­cil coun­ties) to have a slight downtick in over­dose deaths. In 2016, 15 peo­ple died from over­doses, two fewer than the year be­fore. But that’s still 15 too many.

The over­all trend, statewide and in South­ern Mary­land is dis­turb­ing. And fen­tanyl is seen by pub­lic health pro­fes­sion­als and law en­force­ment as gaso­line pitched on this al­ready-roar­ing fire. Fen­tanyl and heroin ac­counted for 90 per­cent of the over­dose fa­tal­i­ties statewide, ac­cord­ing to Mary­land’s health depart­ment.

Ini­tially fen­tanyl was pri­mar­ily mixed with heroin. Now fen­tanyl — which is called 50 times stronger than heroin — is also show­ing up in coun­ter­feit pre­scrip­tion pills. Health of­fi­cials said one rea­son fen­tanyl is be­ing blamed for so many un­in­ten­tional deaths is that of­ten peo­ple don’t know the po­tent opi­oid is in what they are sell­ing or buy­ing.

And sadly, through the first chunk of 2017, the epi­demic con­tin­ues. As of last week, there had been 34 over­dose deaths in South­ern Mary­land, 17 of which were in Charles County. Of those deaths re­gion-wide, 19 have been de­ter­mined to be caused by opi­oids, with a pos­si­ble 20th still pend­ing a tox­i­col­ogy re­port.

Aware­ness and preven­tion re­main the best tools for this bat­tle which has mo­bi­lized health de­part­ments and law en­force­ment as never be­fore. Here’s hop­ing we gain some ground in the com­ing months.

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