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Hogan: Limit opioid prescriptions to 7 days, boost penalty for dealers whose drugs cause fatal overdoses

Oxycodone pain pills. (John Moore)

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on Tuesday announced measures aimed at addressing the state's growing opioid epidemic, including proposals to limit prescriptions for pain medications and increase prison terms for drug dealers convicted of distributing opioids that result in lethal overdoses.

Hogan (R) also signed an executive order establishing a central "command center" to coordinate local and state efforts to combat opioid abuse, a problem that resulted in 1,400 fatal overdoses in Maryland last year.

The governor, whose cousin died of a heroin overdose, said he will introduce legislation to restrict opioid prescriptions to a seven-day supply, with exceptions for certain types of treatment such as for cancer and hospice care. Many experts say a growing number of heroin addicts started using the drug as a less-expensive way to feed an addiction to prescription painkillers.

Addicts are turning to their pets’ prescription drugs to get high

"We have to cut that pipeline of new users," said Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford (R), who joined the governor during the announcement at Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis. Rutherford headed a heroin and opioid task force that Hogan established during his first year in office.

At least seven states have enacted strict limits on opioid prescriptions in the past two years, including Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. Kentucky adopted such legislation in 2012.

The governor also promised legislation to create a new felony category allowing sentences of up to 30 years for distributors of opioids or synthetic opioids resulting in a lethal overdose, with an exemption for those who sell the drugs to sustain an addiction.

States have approached sentencing for lethal overdoses in such drug transactions differently, with some using felony-murder statutes to increase penalties while others use manslaughter or "depraved-heart" laws.

Hogan's proposed exception for addicts aligns with a sweeping criminal-justice overhaul approved in Maryland last year as part of an effort to shift from punishing drug addiction to treating it.

The governor said he will also propose a bill that would allow the state to take action against drug prescribers and dispensers based on investigations by licensing boards and federal authorities.

This dealer’s heroin was so strong it led to 26 overdoses in a day

Hogan noted that he has increased the number of treatment beds in the state by 50 percent compared with the previous administration, and that his 2018 budget includes $4 million in new funding to boost efforts to treat addiction.

Several advocacy groups applauded the governor's latest efforts but said the state needs to do more.

Lisa Lowe, director of the Heroin Action Coalition of Maryland and the mother of an opioid addict, described Hogan as a "champion" for many of her group's causes, but she said the state could do more to expand access to treatment and provide oversight of existing centers to make sure they're effective.

"We can give $4 million for treatment, but what if the provider has no oversight?" she said.

Lethal opioid overdoses have skyrocketed across the nation. In Maryland, the number of heroin-related overdose deaths rose 72 percent, to 918, during the first nine months of last year, compared with the same period in 2015.

Fatal overdoses related to prescription opioids jumped 17 percent, to 270, during that span.

The most dramatic surge in recent years involves deaths from fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that killed rock legend Prince last year.

The number of fentanyl-related overdose deaths in Maryland nearly tripled during the first three quarters of 2016, rising to 738.

Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Wes Adams (R), who attended Tuesday's announcement, said his brother-in-law died of an opioid overdose this month after becoming addicted to pain medications.

"My family has not been able to be exempt from the opioid crisis," Adams said. "I look forward to our legislators standing behind this legislation so we can continue this battle as an entire community."