Mary­land opi­oid cri­sis and ed­u­ca­tion

The Washington Times Daily - - METRO - DEB­O­RAH SIM­MONS ● Deb­o­rah Sim­mons can be con­tacted at dsim­mons@wash­ing­ton­times.com.

Read­ing the tea leaves of the 2018 gu­ber­na­to­rial in Mary­land would be a fool­ish un­der­tak­ing at this junc­ture. The crys­tal ball is fairly clear about one thing, though: The opi­oid epi­demic is at the cross­roads with pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion.

Mary­land teach­ers are bump­ing against a July 1 dead­line to de­ter­mine how to “ed­u­cate” young peo­ple and col­lege stu­dents about the dan­gers of opi­oids. At the same time, the opi­oid cri­sis is hit­ting some re­gions harder than oth­ers.

That dy­namic means that Demo­cratic con­tenders like for­mer NAACP chief Ben Jeal­ous, busi­ness­man Alec Ross and Prince Ge­orge’s County Ex­ec­u­tive Rush­ern Baker III, who an­nounced his run for gov­er­nor Wed­nes­day, must reimag­ine how to push for votes.

All Mary­lan­ders don’t speak the same lan­guage, if you will.

Take West­ern Mary­land, a re­gion south of the Mason-Dixon Line among the Ap­palachian Moun­tains and a very re­spectable shade of red. Its coun­ties in­clude Al­le­gany, Fred­er­ick, Gar­rett and Wash­ing­ton, and its vot­ers live in largely ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties — the op­po­site of tra­di­tion­ally blue, ur­ban pock­ets such as Bal­ti­more City and Mont­gomery and Prince Ge­orge’s coun­ties.

West­ern Mary­land helped put Repub­li­can Larry Ho­gan in the gov­er­nor’s seat in 2014.

These days, the opi­oid epi­demic has plunked it­self into the ru­ral life of West­ern Mary­land, and Mr. Ho­gan, state law­mak­ers and law en­forcers are hav­ing a ter­ri­ble time try­ing to get it to budge.

Mr. Ho­gan de­clared a state of emer­gency, and the Gen­eral As­sem­bly passed a pas­sel of laws to wres­tle the pub­lic health de­mon.

The ap­proach is mul­ti­pronged, tar­get­ing pre­ven­tion on the front end, treat­ment for abusers and tougher en­force­ment.

Those statewide ef­forts are cer­tainly ap­pro­pri­ate, con­sid­er­ing:

● There were 918 heroin-re­lated deaths through the first nine months of 2016 — up 23 per­cent in all of 2015 and up nearly 60 per­cent in 2014.

● In ad­di­tion to bat­tling heroin, Mary­land is fight­ing a sud­den rise in the use of syn­thetic opi­oids such as fen­tanyl and car­fen­tanil, which ex­perts say can be more than 1,000 times stronger that mor­phine. Abusers of­ten mix the synthetics with heroin.

● There were 17 fen­tanyl-re­lated deaths in Mary­land in 2007, but 738 dur­ing the first nine months of 2016.

● The “Heroin High­way” stretches along In­ter­state 85 from Fred­er­ick County to Bal­ti­more. Pre­scrip­tion abusers sim­ply hit the road for Bal­ti­more, where they can more read­ily buy street drugs to get high.

A cri­sis in­deed.

The laws that take ef­fect July 1 in­clude the Start Talk­ing Mary­land Act, which re­quires pub­lic schools to of­fer drug ed­u­ca­tion plat­forms on opi­ates and heroin in third through fifth grade, in sixth through eighth grade and again in ninth through 12th grade.

The law also re­quires that all col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties ac­cept state fund­ing to have a heroin and opi­oid pre­ven­tion plan that in­cludes in­com­ing, full-time stu­dents. The plan will in­clude cam­pus law en­force­ment train­ing on nalox­one, which is used to pre­vent fa­tal over­doses.

Bal­ti­more al­ready is warn­ing that it is run­ning low on nalox­one, and it’s a small won­der con­sid­er­ing the abusers leav­ing West­ern Mary­land and else­where in the state are cruis­ing into Bal­ti­more for heroin and other il­licit drugs.

In fact, of the 2,089 fa­tal opi­ate-re­lated deaths in Mary­land in 2016, 694 of them were in Bal­ti­more.

More­over, Bal­ti­more has an es­ti­mated 21,000 heroin ad­dicts.

If Messrs. Baker, Jeal­ous and Ross think they can win the 2018 gov­er­nor’s race by pars­ing their lips and speak­ing sparkling blue rhetoric, they and their sup­port­ers need to think again.

While Mary­land’s ur­ban ar­eas are in­clined to be pro­gres­sive, vot­ers hear and see things dif­fer­ently when the dif­fer­ence be­tween life and death is under dis­cus­sion.

Drug abusers are dy­ing in Bal­ti­more, but their fam­i­lies could be on the other side of the state or across the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay Bridge.

How the 2018 can­di­dates ad­dress vot­ers in one re­gion may fall on deaf ears in an­other.

If they are mum, that speaks vol­umes, too. Mr. Baker, for ex­am­ple, in his an­nounce­ment video, urged for vot­ers to join his cam­paign for gov­er­nor. Not once, how­ever, did he men­tion Mary­land’s No. 1 pub­lic health cri­sis: opi­oid and heroin abuse.

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