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Md. opioid task force releases final recommendations

OxyContin is among the opioids commonly abused by addicts. (Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

A Maryland task force on Tuesday released its final recommendations on how to address the growing scourge of opioid addiction and deaths in the state, calling for expanded access to treatment and increased efforts to disrupt drug trafficking.

The work group issued 33 proposals, including calls for more emphasis on overdose prevention, a pilot recovery unit for inmates addicted to drugs and mandatory tracking of prescription data to help identify people who may be abusing powerful pain medications.

Gov. Larry Hogan (R), whose cousin died of a heroin overdose, created the 11-member task force this year. On Tuesday, he said in a statement that he would take action after reviewing the recommendations.

Opioid-related deaths have skyrocketed in recent years, fueled by addictions to powerful pain medications and a growing use of heroin.

Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford (R), who leads the task force, said in a statement Tuesday that heroin and opioid abuse is “an issue that transcends race, socio-economic status, age, and any other demographic.”

Nationwide, the rate of heroin deaths has nearly quadrupled since 2000, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Maryland, 578 people died of heroin overdoses last year, a 25 percent increase from 2013 and more than twice the number who died from using it in 2010.

A recent poll by The Washington Post and the University of Maryland found that nearly 3 in 10 Marylanders have a close friend or family member who is addicted to opioids.

In August, Rutherford announced an initial round of actions, based on earlier recommendations from the work group. The plans involved spending $2 million on initiatives to increase access to treatment on the Eastern Shore, expand training in how to administer drugs that reverse the effects of overdoses, boosting law enforcement efforts to disrupt dealers and launching a public-awareness campaign about the dangers of addiction.

The task force’s final recommendations called for stricter laws against organized drug trafficking and a criminal penalty for heroin distribution that results in an overdose.

It also proposed creating a heroin-investigation unit within Maryland State Police that would coordinate with local law enforcement in gathering intelligence and halting illegal distribution operations.

Additionally, the work group said that more doctors should be allowed to prescribe buprenorphine, a drug that produces low levels of opioid-like euphoria to suppress withdrawal and help addicts quit.

About 800 Maryland doctors are authorized to offer it, but few are active prescribers, according to the report.

“Opioid addicted individuals who cannot access a provider may seek diverted buprenorphine in an attempt to self-treat,” the task force said.

“Scarcity creates an incentive for prescribers to run cash-only practices, denying access to those with private insurance and Medicaid.”

The final recommendations come less than three weeks after Johns Hopkins University released a report calling for stricter guidelines for prescribing and dispensing opioids, saying doctors often give the medications “in quantities and for conditions that are excessive, and in many cases, beyond the evidence base.”

In the poll by The Post and U-Md., 52 percent of Marylanders who know an addict said the state spends too little on treatment, compared with 38 percent of those who do not know one.

Only 8 percent of respondents said fighting addiction should be the state’s top priority, compared with 37 percent for education, 20 percent for the economy and 13 percent for taxes.