As Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) spoke passionately Tuesday about the tide of heroin that has infiltrated his state, killing hundreds every year, he shared a personal tie to the crisis: His first cousin, too, overdosed and died.
“People don’t like to talk about this problem,” Hogan said, his voice cracking. “The consequences of this heroin crisis are not easy or comfortable to acknowledge. Yet we must acknowledge it.”
The governor did not share the cousin’s name, place of residence or anything more about the death, which he said devastated his family. It was not until he traveled the state in his campaign bus last year, he added, that he realized how many other families had experienced the same pain.
Shortly after his election, Hogan accused then-Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) of not doing enough to address overdose deaths, which jumped from 247 in 2011 to 464 in 2013.
The Republican promised that within days of taking office, he would declare a “state of emergency,” organize a summit of experts and find more funding for drug treatment.
It’s not quite that simple, he quickly learned.
There is a swarm of advocates with competing ideas that are often difficult to evaluate. There is a tight budget, which means that extra cash to help drug addicts would come at the expense of other programs. And even with the state’s number of heroin overdose deaths climbing each year, it turns out that declaring a state of emergency doesn’t make legal sense.
At a much-anticipated news conference on Tuesday, Hogan announced that his plan — at least for now — is to continue looking for answers.
Hogan said he has assembled a “coordinating council” of state officials, similar to the council O’Malley formed last year, and an “emergency task force” made up of elected officials and substance abuse experts that will provide a series of recommendations to the governor by Dec. 1.
“This crisis is real, and it demands our fullest and most immediate attention,” Hogan said.
Although he has yet to formulate a specific plan of attack, Hogan on Tuesday struck a compassionate tone in discussing possible ways to address heroin addiction, one that activists say they don’t always encounter with politicians. Hogan said his viewpoint — that law enforcement efforts must be accompanied by treatment and other services for addicts — was shaped by the stories he heard on the campaign trail last year.
While the state will continue to arrest drug dealers and strive to end drug trafficking in the region, the governor said, he also wants to look for alternatives to incarceration for addicts and ways to make treatment more easily available.
“Let’s be very clear: Addiction is a disease, and we will not be able to just arrest our way out of this crisis,” Hogan said.
With his eyes misty, Hogan described the moments at which too many Marylanders realize that heroin has become the biggest problem facing their community — whether it be a wealthy suburb or rural town.
Maybe it’s when they read that a former high school football star or valedictorian was arrested for armed robbery, he said, or when the girl next door is arrested for prostitution. Too often, he said, parents don’t realize the risk until it’s too late for their child.
Hogan left the news conference without answering questions.
Some activists said they welcomed the governor’s commitment to addressing heroin addiction. But others pointed out that Hogan’s proposed budget reduces funding for mental health services, which includes substance abuse programs. Hundreds of mental health activists plan to rally in Annapolis on Wednesday afternoon to protest the funding cuts.
Maryland Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford (R), who is in charge of the heroin response effort, said the administration had to make many “tough decisions” in composing the budget.
Hogan also announced on Tuesday that the state has received 10,000 doses of a medication that can reverse the effects of a heroin or opioid overdose. The medication was donated by Kaléo, a Richmond-based pharmaceutical company.
And the governor said that he will use $500,000 from a federal grant the state received to expand programs at state prisons that prepare those incarcerated on drug charges to transition back into the real world — and, hopefully, not resume using heroin.
Hogan on Tuesday did not do what many had expected: declare a heroin “state of emergency.”
Such a declaration, he argued last year, would shine attention on the addiction issue and free up federal funding. In early December, he said: “Every state on the East Coast has declared a state of emergency except Maryland — and Maryland has the worst problem.”
It turns out, however, that most East Coast states have not made emergency declarations, although many governors use the word “emergency” in describing the problem.
Rutherford said Tuesday that a formal declaration of an emergency “really doesn’t fit from a legal standpoint,” so the Hogan administration has decided not to do it either.