The increase in drug- and alcohol-related deaths in Maryland in 2016 was the biggest ever recorded in the state, officials said Thursday, the latest sign of an opioid epidemic that has triggered a state of emergency and prompted leaders to dedicate millions in funding to combat addiction.
Overdoses killed 2,089 people in 2016, an increase of 66 percent from the previous year, according to data released by the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
The statewide death toll climbed for the sixth straight year, as heroin, fentanyl and prescription opioid use surged among all age, racial and regional groups, and authorities reported that deadlier combinations of the three narcotics were appearing more frequently on the streets. The sharpest increase involved individuals 55 and older.
Health officials said medical examiners will now screen for one particularly lethal drug, carfentanil. The drug, which is used to tranquilize elephants, can be mixed with other opioids to make them more potent and is contributing to fatal overdoses in Maryland and elsewhere.
“We want deaths to cease,” Secretary of Health and Mental Hygiene Dennis R. Schrader said. “And we need those who use drugs to seek help before they feel compelled to use again.”
Advocates — many of them relatives of addicts — say acute and long-term treatment remains the greatest need for their communities. The state health department says there are more than 2,200 beds available across Maryland that provide varying levels of treatment for everything from withdrawal management to rehab centers and group homes.
The state was granted a waiver by the federal government this year to expand Medicaid reimbursement to clinics that provide residential substance-abuse treatment and make more treatment beds available to individuals who need care.
Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has raised the profile of the crisis since taking office in 2015, pledging $2 million from his budget to expand drug-court programs and raise public awareness. His administration has launched initiatives to identify those at risk of abusing drugs and is reaching out to overdose survivors to connect them to services.
The legislature passed bills this year to address addiction, although a proposal to fund 10 crisis-treatment centers was trimmed to one.
The new laws will supply public schools with overdose-reversal drugs; shield people who try to help overdose victims from legal liability; and try to prevent the overprescribing of painkillers by implementing new standards for doctors.
According to the newly released data, Baltimore City continues to lead the state in drug- and alcohol-related deaths, followed by Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties.
Together, the three jurisdictions account for nearly 60 percent of all such deaths — the vast majority of which are attributed to heroin and fentanyl overdoses.
Non-opioid-related deaths accounted for 11 percent of drug and alcohol fatalities in Maryland, and were also on the rise. Nearly 300 more people died because of alcohol in 2016 than in 2015. During that same period, the number of cocaine-related deaths doubled, in part because users are combining the drug with more potent opioids, authorities said.