How Will Maryland Cut Rising Heroin Overdoses?
Although 464 people died of heroin-related overdoses in Maryland, a state of nearly six million people, the heroin fatalities jumped 95 percent in just three years, causing what Rutherford called “havoc in Maryland.”
The most recent numbers are those from 2010 to 2013. But the governor’s office said early counts for 2014 show the heroin death rate may have climbed 20 percent. Rutherford said the federal Drug Enforcement Agency is finding that, on a national scale, 75 percent of new heroin addicts had switched from the more expensive opiate prescription painkillers.
A New Focus on Heroin Addiction
Putting heroin addiction on the fast track was, according to Rutherford, a realization made last year on the campaign trail. As he and Hogan traveled around the state, from small counties to big cities, farm towns and the urban metros, the pair faced a shock.
“We were meeting with local law enforcement, local county sheriffs, talking to them about what they were facing,” Rutherford said in an interview. More funding is what everybody wants, of course. “What we expected to hear was, ‘We need more equipment, better communication,’ but from the small county on the Maryland eastern shore, to western Maryland, the mountains, heroin was the big issue. Most think of heroin addiction as exclusively an urban issue that had waned in the 1960s and 1970s, and certainly it’s still a challenge in Baltimore, (the state’s largest city) but certainly not in these hamlets.”
One anguished Maryland mother who has met with state politicians about heroin’s devastation to her family is Sheila Nichols. She was featured in a news story the governor read while campaigning for office last year, Rutherford said, and it was emotional enough that Gov. Hogan revealed to her his own loss to heroin overdose.
Less than two weeks before the governor’s task force was announced, Nichols spoke to USA Today about heroin addiction claiming her 34-year-old son, Jonathan Chilly, Jr. He’d twice nearly died of heroin overdoses, but that’s not what killed him in June 2014, Nichols said. After 20 years of heroin use and three heart surgeries, the drug-ravaged organ had failed him. In a visit after the task force announcement, Rutherford went to the home of Nichols, who said she’s not giving up on helping heroin addicts. "I'm a fighter," she told the Lt. Governor. "I'll do whatever it takes." She urged anyone dealing with addiction who needs help to call her at the number on Rutherford’s Facebook page.
Lt. Governor Rutherford said the incoming administration began looking at other states where heroin and opiate overdoses had also been increasing to see what was already underway or working. Vermont Governor Pete Shumlin focused his state of the state speech entirely on treating heroin addicts and saving their lives. A year later, his administration has announced enough progress to attract news media.
Expanded Services for Drug Addiction and Overdose Treatment
The approach has been easier in a state with a population equal to the size of Baltimore, yet it nonetheless has steered 1,000 more addicts into treatment, distributed 800 naloxone overdose-reverse devices and opened more treatment beds, Shumlin announced. The state helped pay for the service expansion with funding provided to states in the Affordable Care Act. The state health department took the lead, coordinating with police and prosecutors to direct away from jail many defendants with drug-related, non-violent charges.
Maryland’s 11-member task force will conduct field talks around the state with local residents and police, psychiatrists and treatment providers on what their needs are and about ideas and programs that show promise. Free overdose-reversal kits have been donated to the state by the maker, and the Maryland governor’s office will fund some programs with a $500,000 federal grant. They will have a report of early findings in six months and a final plan proposed by year’s end, Rutherford said. And mirroring Vermont’s successful coordination of involved agencies, Maryland governor formed a coordinating council that will ensure the state’s involved parties are working together.
“Right now there's no budget, but we begin with the bias that treatment is probably cheaper than incarceration,” said Rutherford. “We’ll be trying to get a handle about what works on the correctional side, and how can we address those going into the correctional facilities: How do we get them clean? How we deal with non-violent offenders? We’re going to evaluate that and the best use of our resources.”