Larry Hogan, Maryland’s Republican nominee for governor, said during a televised debate on Tuesday that the state’s No. 1 crime problem is heroin — and that the administration of Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) “has done nothing and hasn’t taken action.”
That comment likely angered members of the O’Malley administration who have launched a number of initiatives to combat the crisis in the past year, although they have yet to find a solution to the devastating surge of heroin overdoses that has hit the East Coast.
Hogan detailed the state’s problems with heroin during the debate, pointing out that this is not just an issue in inner-city Baltimore or urban areas. He said that he toured a jail in Frederick where 60 percent of inmates were there because of drugs or gangs. St. Mary’s County officials in Southern Maryland told him that 60 percent of their crime problems are a result of heroin, Hogan said.
“I can tell you that the No. 1 problem we have here in Maryland, with respect to crime, is heroin,” Hogan said. “We’ve got an epidemic of heroin. We’ve recently been called the ‘Heroin Capital of the United States.”
There’s no question that heroin is a major problem in Maryland. Last year, more people in Maryland were killed by heroin than were murdered. (The title of “Heroin Capital” comes from a National Geographic documentary about the drug trade in Baltimore that aired this summer. Baltimore officials and others have long disagreed with that label, and federal officials often point to Vermont as having the most difficult struggle with the drug right now.)
“Every state on the East Coast has declared a state of emergency on this problem,” Hogan said during the debate. “Our administration, currently, has done nothing and hasn’t taken action, even though we’re the worst in the country.”
If elected governor, Hogan said that he would immediately declare a “state of emergency” and organize a “summit” that would bring together all interested parties.
But a lot of that has already happened. O’Malley signed an executive order to form an “Overdose Prevention Council” in late June that brings together leaders of various state agencies to coordinate a response to the spike in heroin overdoses.
”Maryland is more committed than ever to tackling the scourge of substance abuse afflicting so many of our neighbors, friends and family members,” O’Malley said in a statement at the time.
One of O’Malley’s 16 strategic goals is to dramatically reduce overdose deaths before he leaves office in January. For years, the state made progress in cutting the number of fatal overdoses, by increasing access to treatment and cracking down on dealers, but then a rush of cheap heroin hit the market.
There were 858 drug- and alcohol-overdose deaths in Maryland in 2013. Of those, 464 involved heroin. During the first three months of 2014, 252 people died from overdoses, a 33 percent increase from the same time period the year before. Officials say 148 of the deaths were the result of heroin.
“It’s getting worse, which is why we are redoubling our efforts,” O’Malley said at a news conference at the Annapolis Police Department in July.
In addition to efforts by law enforcement officials to find and stop heroin suppliers and dealers, state health officials launched a statewide awareness campaign to teach Marylanders the signs of addiction. They have also trained more than 2,000 emergency responders and others to administer naloxone, a drug that can reverse an overdose. And they have continued monitoring prescription opioid drugs, which are often the gateway to heroin, which provides the same high but usually for much less money.
Teams of experts have been combing through autopsy reports to spot trends, and Maryland has compiled a database of information that officials believe is one of the most sophisticated in the country, said Joshua Sharfstein, Maryland’s top health official. State officials were invited to the White House earlier this year to share their strategies.
“This is something that the agencies are treating as seriously as homicide,” Sharfstein said on Tuesday night after the debate.