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Hogan wants Md. to sue opioid manufacturers, turn jail into treatment center

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, center, speaks at a news conference in Baltimore last month. (Patrick Semansky)

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) called Tuesday for the state to sue opioid manufacturers and distributors, and ordered a study on converting a shuttered Baltimore jail into a treatment facility, part of his broader efforts to combat the drug crisis.

Hogan's office is also proposing legislation that would increase penalties for those trafficking high volumes of fentanyl — the leading cause of unintentional overdoses — and a bill allowing first responders to share overdose data, as they do in the majority of states.

"I am committed to doing everything in our power to bring those responsible for this scourge to justice and prevent future victims," Hogan said in a statement.

The governor's announcement directed Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) to consider lawsuits against opioid companies, without naming any, and to direct any settlement proceeds generated by those suits to addiction prevention and treatment programs.

But Frosh said his office is already involved in a 41-state investigation into opioid companies and doesn't need the governor's permission to sue them.

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"It's like a rooster taking credit for the sunrise. He's directing us to do stuff we are already doing," Frosh said in an interview. "All we need from him are resources."

Frosh also accused Hogan of undercutting his office's ability to combat the opioid crisis by not including funding for four lawyers dedicated to the issue in his annual budget. He says he did get authorization from the governor to hire outside counsel.

A Hogan spokesman fired back that Frosh has 36 vacant positions in his office.

"Instead of wasting his staff's (and everyone else's) time complaining about verb semantics, he should focus more of his energy on helping us combat the opioid crisis," said Doug Mayer.

Hogan and Frosh are also feuding over Frosh's efforts to sue President Trump's administration. The General Assembly last year passed legislation allowing the attorney general to sue the federal government without the governor's authorization, which had been required by state law.

But Hogan did not include funding for such litigation in his budget proposal, suggesting the funding instead could come from legal winnings generated by Frosh's consumer protection division.

That funding dispute was first reported by The Baltimore Sun.

Hogan's latest opioid proposal comes on the heels of years of work on the issue. It's also personal: He lost a cousin to a heroin overdose years ago. Opioid-related deaths have been on the rise in Maryland and surpassed 1,000 in the first half of last year, according to preliminary state data.

In Maryland’s 6th congressional district, opioids are a campaign issue

In March, Hogan declared a state of emergency over the crisis and committed an additional $50 million over five years to beef up enforcement and treatment.

He signed legislation last year that requires health providers to prescribe the lowest effective dose of an opioid, enhances sentences for drug dealers prescribing fentanyl and makes the overdose antidote naloxone available without a prescription.

Democratic legislative leaders say addressing addiction is a priority for the legislative session, which began this month and ends in April. House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) hosted a Tuesday summit on opioids.

Opioids are also a key campaign issue as Hogan seeks a second term in November.

Former NAACP President Ben Jealous, one of seven vying for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, this week called for additional state funding for treatment and naloxone.