Trying to gain some ground against deadly drugs
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.