MARYLAND HAS just issued its latest report on the opioid epidemic in the state; let’s start by recounting the good news, because, unfortunately, it won’t take long. Overdose deaths related to heroin declined from 1,212 in 2016 to 1,078 in 2017; deaths in which prescription opioids were involved also fell slightly, from 418 to 413. Data from other sources indicate that opioid prescribing is waning. Such statistics suggest the state is finally making headway against those two killers.
Nevertheless, overall deaths due to drug and alcohol intoxication rose by 9 percent, to a record 2,282. This was the seventh straight annual increase and probably means that Maryland still has one of the top five death rates among the states for opioid-related overdoses, as it did in 2016, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. While Baltimore City remains the epicenter of the crisis, with an overdose death rate of 45 per 100,000 residents, overdoses also affect rural parts of the state, with Cecil and Caroline counties registering unintentional intoxication death rates of 31 and nearly 30 per 100,000, respectively, from 2012 through 2016, according to state officials.
The culprit is fentanyl, the highly potent, highly addictive and highly lethal synthetic opioid that began flooding the state in the past half-decade. This drug was implicated as a factor in nearly 70 percent of Maryland’s overdose deaths in 2017. It may even be the case that fentanyl is the cause of a sudden spike in cocaine-related deaths, from 464 in 2016 to 691 in 2017. Drug dealers appear to be adding fentanyl to powder cocaine, state officials explain, and it is killing unsuspecting users.
In short, the bad guys are constantly trying new ways to get people addicted to dangerous substances. Are state officials equally innovative and proactive in their efforts to prevent and treat addiction? Up for reelection after four years in office that coincided with the fentanyl surge, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) will be asked this question this year — and not unfairly. Certainly, drug-related deaths are one of the few glaring trouble spots in a state that is otherwise faring well, and Mr. Hogan’s Democratic opponent, Ben Jealous, is promising to do better. His main new idea is to concentrate state anti-drug efforts in a new agency that would also work on managing the chronic pain that drove many to use, and then overuse, prescription opioids.
Mr. Hogan cannot fairly be blamed for a crisis — fentanyl — that no one in Maryland or the rest of the country really anticipated. Once it hit, he took it seriously and, in tandem with the legislature and local governments, mobilized a policy response that emphasized not punishment but treatment of drug users. State officials say emergency crews and police administered 20,000 lifesaving doses of naloxone across the state last year. Meanwhile, the Hogan administration is trying to crack down on large-scale traffickers. Broadly speaking, this is the right approach and not all that different from what Mr. Jealous is proposing to do. The public can only gain from reasoned debate about how to deal with a problem that will challenge the state next year, no matter who wins.