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Maryland fentanyl deaths surge again in first quarter of 2017

A reporter holds up an example of the amount of fentanyl that can be deadly after a news conference about deaths from fentanyl exposure, at DEA Headquarters in Arlington, Va., in June. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

The number of Maryland deaths related to fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, surged in the first quarter of 2017, more than doubling from the first quarter of 2016, and making up the majority of drug-related overdose deaths in the state.

Maryland’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene reported Friday that fentanyl-overdose­ fatalities jumped to 372 from January through March, up from 157 during the same period in 2016. Fentanyl and a related additive, carfentanil, which are increasingly common nationwide, can be 50 or 100 times more powerful than heroin.

Many drug-users are unknowingly consuming the synthetic opioids, which are often mixed into other drugs to increase their potency, Health Secretary Dennis Schrader said.

"We implore Marylanders who are grappling with substance use disorder and are taking illicit substances to seek treatment immediately," Schrader said in a statement. The state has an online tool for locating treatment centers.

Use of fentanyl, the powerful synthetic opioid that killed rock legend Prince in April, has spiked dramatically in recent years. There were eight fentanyl-related deaths in Maryland in the first quarter of 2013, which means since then the number has jumped more than 40-fold.

The marked increase in use is a key factor in the growing number of opioid-related overdoses — which are also tied to the use of heroin and prescription painkillers — in the state.

Deaths from heroin increased, but not as dramatically as deaths from fentanyl. There were 266 heroin-related deaths in the first quarter of 2017, up 21 percent from 2016.

The number of prescription opioid-related deaths was similar this quarter compared with last — 100 in 2017, compared with 99 in 2016.

Opioid-related deaths in the state have increased every year since 2012, with more pronounced upticks in 2016 and 2017.

Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who lost a cousin to a heroin overdose, has declared a state of emergency regarding opioid addiction. In June, Hogan 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.

Hogan also received a waiver so beginning July 1, residents could be reimbursed by the federal Medicaid program for certain residential substance abuse treatment programs.

Health officials in Baltimore — which reported the most drug-related­ deaths and the most deaths because of fentanyl (123 through March, compared with 46 at the same time in 2016) — said in June they were running low on naloxone, which has been used to save hundreds of lives in the city.

Baltimore County and Anne Arundel County reported the next highest figures for fentanyl-related deaths.

Prince George’s County had the fourth-highest number of fentanyl-related deaths — with 27 in the first quarter of 2017, compared with four in 2016. Montgomery County reported 15 fentanyl-related deaths compared with five in 2016.

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