The number of fentanyl-related deaths in Maryland reached an all-time high in 2017 and is on track to continue increasing in 2018, officials said, part of a nationwide overdose epidemic being driven by the powerful synthetic drug.
Maryland fatalities caused by fentanyl jumped 42 percent from 2016 to 2017 — from 1,119 to 1,594 — even as deaths related to heroin use declined, according to data released by the Maryland Department of Health on Thursday.
Health Secretary Robert R. Neall called the rising numbers “staggering,” noting that in the first three months of 2018 alone there were 500 fentanyl-related deaths in the state.
Nationwide, federal and state law enforcement officials have begun aggressively prosecuting crimes involving fentanyl, which is often mixed into other drugs to increase their potency. The synthetic drug is about 50 times stronger than heroin.
Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who lost a cousin to a heroin overdose, declared a state of emergency regarding opioid addiction in 2017 and issued a standing order that allowed the overdose-reversal drug naloxone, also known by the brand name Narcan, to be dispensed from licensed pharmacies without a prescription.
Since he took office, the state has spent more than $500 million to address substance-abuse disorders, said Hogan spokeswoman Amelia Chasse.
This week, the U.S. Department of Labor announced that Maryland is one of six states that will receive a grant to provide re-employment services to residents impacted by opioid use. Chasse said the governor “has consistently pushed for more federal funding” to address the epidemic and has been “incredibly proactive in bringing attention to this crisis.”
The only time Hogan has testified before Congress, she noted, was to ask the federal government to step up its funding to address the epidemic and increase enforcement actions to prevent fentanyl from entering the country.
The number of heroin-related Maryland deaths dropped 11 percent from 2016 to 2017, from 1,212 to 1,078, and was down 19 percent, from 291 to 236, during the first three months of 2018 compared with the same period in 2017. The number of deaths related to prescription opioids decreased slightly, from 418 in 2016 to 413 in 2017.
But the number of cocaine-related deaths spiked 49 percent, jumping from 464 to 691, driven by an increase of fentanyl mixed with cocaine, officials said.
There were 229 cocaine-related deaths from January through March 2018, up from 135 during the same period last year.
Nearly two-thirds of the cocaine-related deaths involved fentanyl, according to the Department of Health.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous criticized Hogan’s handling of the opioid epidemic this week, saying Tuesday that the state was late in releasing its 2017 data. The Health Department published its 2016 report in early June of last year.
“Maryland has been behind the ball in combating the opioid epidemic . . . it’s time for the governor to become personally involved in making sure we start treating this crisis like the public health emergency it is,” Jealous said in a statement.
He has proposed increasing state funding for naloxone, establishing more 24-hour crisis centers, working with counties that want to establish needle-exchange programs and expanding treatment available in correctional facilities, among other things.
Chasse, the spokeswoman, said the delay was because the data released for 2017 was more comprehensive than in 2016, including breakdowns by region and age. She dismissed Jealous’s statements about the timing of the data release as a political attack.
“It’s frankly despicable for anyone to use a national health crisis to score partisan political points,” she said.
The data for the first quarter of 2018 was released slightly earlier this year than data for the same period in 2017.