Maryland will add treatment beds for heroin addicts on the Eastern Shore, boost law enforcement efforts to disrupt dealers and launch a public-awareness campaign about the dangers of addiction as part of an initial state response to a growing and deadly overdose epidemic, Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford said Tuesday.
The state will spend $2 million in already approved funds on various initiatives, Rutherford (R) said, including expanded training in how to administer drugs that can reverse the effects of an overdose.
Rutherford was announcing the first round of recommendations to come from a task force created by Gov. Larry Hogan (R) to study heroin addiction and deaths, which have risen dramatically in recent years as people have turned to the drug as a cheaper alternative to prescription painkillers.
The task force, led by the lieutenant governor, is due to release its final findings and recommendations in December. “This is going to be a long-term struggle to turn back the tide,” Rutherford said.
As part of the plan to expand treatment and prevention efforts, the administration will dedicate $800,000 to increase capacity at the state-operated A.F. Whitsitt Center on the Eastern Shore, one of the regions hit hardest by heroin use, and $300,000 for a pilot outreach program in Baltimore in which recovering addicts will help overdose survivors.
Additional money will go toward recovery housing and detoxification services for women with children, and to train workers at local health departments and detention centers to administer drugs such as naloxone, which can reverse an overdose’s effects.
The state will also provide more money to police departments to disrupt gangs that distribute heroin. The funding will go toward overtime pay and license-plate readers that can help identify traffickers traveling to the state from places such as Wilmington, Del.; Philadelphia; and New York.
Heroin treatment advocates called the plans a positive first step.
“It gives us every reason to be hopeful that this administration will address the problem in a logical and helpful way,” said Heroin Action Coalition spokeswoman Lisa Lowe. “What we’ll be looking for is a comprehensive approach to improving access to a fully funded and complete continuum of treatment services.”
The task force decided that it made sense to implement the initial recommendations now, Rutherford said, because of the urgency of the problem and because the initiatives do not require additional budget allocations or further action from the legislature.
He said the Hogan administration is likely to propose more ways to address the crisis at the end of the year, including new legislation. Rutherford acknowledged that much more money will probably be needed to significantly affect a crisis that last year resulted in nearly 580 deaths in Maryland — more than double the number from 2010.
“It’s probably never going to be enough,” Rutherford said.
During the first three months of this year, 194 people died of overdoses in Maryland, compared with 146 fatalities during the same stretch last year.
Nationwide, the rate of heroin deaths has nearly quadrupled since 2000, from 0.7 deaths per 100,000 people to 2.7 deaths per 100,000 in 2013, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Hogan, who lost a cousin to heroin addiction, has made addressing the crisis a top priority. He said he realized the extent of the problem in Maryland during his 2014 gubernatorial campaign, while talking to residents whose relatives or friends were addicted.
The governor launched the heroin task force about a month after his inauguration. He also dedicated $484,000 in June to treat addicts in eight county jails with a drug that could help them abstain from heroin once they return to society.
Local authorities have taken action as well. In Baltimore, a task force created by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D) recently called for a 24-hour, on-demand treatment facility, a public-awareness campaign and a data-tracking system that would identify “hot spots” where the need for treatment is especially acute.
On the federal level, the White House announced an initiative last week to pair public health coordinators with law enforcement officers in 15 states, including Maryland, in an effort to focus on treatment rather than punishment of addicts. The program will also attempt to track where heroin is coming from and who is distributing it to dealers on the streets.
Rutherford called for a public-awareness campaign in Maryland similar to the national “Just Say No” anti-drug campaigns of the 1980s and early 1990s, focusing on the connection between prescription painkillers and heroin use — and the potentially deadly consequences. The Hogan administration is working with the State Department of Education to integrate such messages into school curriculums, the lieutenant governor said.
“Every third-grader can tell you how bad cigarettes are, but they can’t tell you how bad it is to take someone else’s prescription medications,” Rutherford said.
The administration plans to designate the first week of September as “Maryland Overdose Awareness Week” and to recruit university film students to create public-service announcements for broadcast outlets and state social-media sites.