O’Malley seeks action against surge in heroin overdoses in Maryland

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) announced Thursday that the number of heroin-related deaths in the state has continued to climb despite efforts by his administration to dramatically reduce overdose deaths before he leaves office in January.

For years, the state was making progress in cutting the number of fatal overdoses, by increasing access to treatment and cracking down on dealers, O’Malley said. But then cheap heroin, often laced with the painkiller fentanyl, became wildly popular among heroin users across the country — and heroin-related deaths spiked in Maryland and elsewhere.

“While I’d like to stand here and tell you that this is getting better, it’s not,” O’Malley said at a news conference at the Annapolis Police Department, one of a series of events examining his progress on 16 strategic goals. “It’s getting worse, which is why we are redoubling our efforts.”

During the first three months of 2014, 252 people died from overdoses, according to data released Thursday, a 33 percent increase from the same time period the year before. Officials say 148 of the deaths were the result of heroin.

There were 858 drug and ­alcohol-related overdose deaths in the state in 2013. Of those, 464 involved heroin, an 88 percent increase from 2011. That means more people in Maryland were killed by heroin in 2013 than were murdered.

State health officials are treating the opiate overdoses like an epidemic. O’Malley has convened an Overdose Prevention Council to coordinate with state agencies to collect and analyze data and come up with strategies to prevent fatalities. The council met for the first time this month.

Many state troopers and other Maryland first responders now carry naloxone, a medication that can reverse the lethal effects of a heroin overdose. Troopers also pass out treatment information, and soon-to-be-released inmates are educated on the dangers of heroin.

“Fatality review teams” have begin studying each overdose case file to find commonalities or trends that could help identify heroin sources, at-risk groups and new prevention tactics.

While Baltimore has long struggled with drug abuse, O’Malley noted that the heroin epidemic also has had a significant impact on rural and suburban areas of the state, where communities are struggling to respond. Addiction often begins with prescription drugs. Users then switch to heroin, which is usually less expensive.

“If we want to save more lives, we’re going to have to change what we’re doing,” O’Malley said. ”We’re going to have to do more of the things that we know work and do them more broadly.”

Jenna Johnson is a political reporter who is covering the 2016 presidential campaign.

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