Nearly 3 in 10 Marylanders say they have a close friend or family member who was or is addicted to opioids such as heroin and prescription pain pills, a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll has found.
The finding illustrates the effect of a surge in opioid use that Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has described as a crisis and vowed to address.
Poll respondents who say they know an addict include Anthony Graziani, a truck driver from Crownsville whose daughter battled addiction; Carson Kennan, a Westminster mother of four whose husband took so many pain pills each day because of a war injury that he forgot to pay the mortgage; and Anthony DeAngelis of Pasadena, whose family friend lost her office job while she abused medication prescribed to her for back problems.
“When we say it’s an epidemic, it’s an epidemic right next door to you,” said Beth Kane Davidson, director of addiction treatment at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda. “I’m on the front lines, so I see it. I know it’s happening.”
Connections to addiction are especially strong in Baltimore City and County, where 40 percent and 37 percent of respondents, respectively, say they know an addict. Thirty-four percent in Anne Arundel and Howard counties say the same, as do 35 percent in rural parts of the state.
Baltimore resident Michael Bowman, 33, said addiction has claimed many of his childhood friends. “Some got over it; some didn’t,” he said. “Some disappeared or moved to other cities, and you never hear from them again.”
In the Washington suburbs of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, Maryland’s largest jurisdictions, the problem appears to be less prevalent. Sixteen percent and 11 percent, respectively, say they know someone who is or was hooked on opioids.
Fifty-two percent of Marylanders who know an addict say the state spends too little on treatment, compared with 38 percent of those who do not know one. In terms of law enforcement, 49 percent of Marylanders with a personal connection say too little is being done, compared with 40 percent of those without a personal connection.
Overall, a plurality of Marylanders favor devoting more money to combat heroin, but support is not overwhelming. Just more than 4 in 10 say the state spends too little providing treatment, and a similar number say too little is spent on enforcing laws against buying and selling heroin. About 3 in 10 say Maryland spends the right amount or too much on heroin enforcement and treatment, while a quarter report no opinion on the issue.
“It has to be considered a health issue and treated as such,” said Graziani, 62, the truck driver. “You can’t put it on the back of an addict. The addict doesn’t have any money to pay for treatment.”
Eight percent say fighting addiction should be the state’s top priority, compared with 9 percent for transportation and 7 percent for the state budget. In contrast, 37 percent of Marylanders say education should be given the highest priority, while 20 percent say the same about the economy and 13 percent about taxes.
Opioid abuse has skyrocketed in recent years, fueled by addiction to prescription pain pills and a growing use of heroin as a relatively cheap alternative that offers a similar high. Federal survey data from 2010 and 2011 found that 4 percent of Marylanders reported using prescription pain relievers for non-medical purposes within the previous year.
Nationwide, the rate of heroin deaths has nearly quadrupled since 2000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Maryland, 578 people died of heroin overdoses last year, a 25 percent increase over 2013 and more than twice the number who died from using the drug in 2010.
Rebecca Mitch McKee, director of Anne Arundel Counseling, said treatment inquiries at her organization have increased by about 7 percent in the past five years.
“There’s definitely a need for more preventative resources,” McKee said.
Kathleen Conley, a Catonsville resident and retired YMCA director of urban services, agreed that the state needs to ensure access for people battling addiction.
“If you’re ready, the slot has to be ready right then,” she said. “It can’t be a week later. I’ve seen that be such a frustration, to not have the treatment available.”
Hogan, who lost a cousin to heroin addiction, launched a heroin task force about a month after taking office. The administration has allocated new money to treat addicts in county jails, and he has released proposals to increase capacity at treatment clinics, boost recovery housing and detoxification services, and disrupt gangs that distribute heroin, among other measures.
LaTesha Waller of Owings Mills, who lost her mother to a pain-medication overdose more than a decade ago, said she wishes the state had started earlier.
“It’s very disheartening that we are just now deciding that there should be a task force, but at least someone made a decision to do something,” she said.
The Post-U-Md. poll finds a clear majority, 69 percent, support shorter prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders in the state. Stephen Malin, a retired college professor from Westminster who knew several students who became addicted to heroin, said criminalizing drug use doesn’t work.
“We’ve tried that now for about 50 years,” he said. “We should have learned our lesson with prohibition.”
But others say the state should implement harsher penalties. Del. Richard K. Impallaria (R-Baltimore County), whose cousin died of an overdose, said the state should sentence dealers to death.
“It’s way worse than your average murderer,” he said. “They torture people with addiction, destroy their families and then poison their children if they’re unborn. It’s almost like they walk out the door with heroin to sell, and they’ve already pulled the trigger. It’s just a matter of who the bullet is going to hit.”
The Post-U-Md. poll was conducted Oct. 8 to 11 among a random sample of 1,006 adult residents of Maryland, including land-line and cellphone respondents. Full results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Fenit Nirappil and Scott Clement contributed to this report.
Read more from the Post-U-Md. poll: