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DEA: 80 percent more drugs taken during pharmacy looting during Baltimore unrest than previously reported

More drugs were stolen from pharmacies during unrest than previously reported.

The amount of drugs looted from Baltimore pharmacies during the Freddie Gray riots last year was substantially higher than initially reported, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. About 80 percent more doses of drugs were taken, the agency said, including powerful opioids.

Gray, 25, died in April 2015 after suffering a severe spinal cord injury in police custody. On the day of his funeral, 27 pharmacies and two methadone clinics were looted.

“There's enough narcotics on the streets of Baltimore to keep it intoxicated for a year,” Anthony W. Batts, who was police commissioner, said at the time.

Treatment specialists have said it’s difficult to determine how fast drug users would absorb an increase in supplies, especially since it was unknown which drugs were taken and who might have acquired them.

Given that the thefts occurred more than a year ago, the drugs likely were sold long ago, said Don Hibbert, the DEA’s assistant special agent in charge for Baltimore.“We do believe most of the drugs were distributed,” he said. “We are not seeing current effects.”

Hibbert said a third of the city’s pharmacies were looted during the unrest, and the retailers have placed the value of the drugs at about $500,000. DEA officials said the street value was likely far higher.

Nearly 315,000 doses of drugs were stolen, the DEA reported. More than 40 percent were Schedule II opioids, a class that includes methadone, oxycodone and fentanyl.

Scheduling is based largely on the potential for abuse, and Schedule II is considered high.

Fentanyl, which is many times more powerful than heroin, has been a particular problem in the state. Law enforcement and treatment professionals say it’s often mixed with or substituted for heroin without the user’s knowledge.

Deaths in Maryland related to fentanyl jumped 83 percent to 340 last year, according to the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Overdose deaths from drugs and alcohol rose 21 percent to 1,259 overall.

Overdose deaths from prescription drugs rose 6 percent to 351.

Public health officials have been exploring ways to reduce the fatalities, as well as addiction generally.

“The numbers in relation to drugs stolen during Baltimore's unrest are indeed troubling,” said Christopher Garrett, a spokesman for the state health department. “Statewide, we continue to see the scourge of heroin, fentanyl and other opioid use and overdoses taking a grim toll on our communities.

“Because, especially with the presence of fentanyl, it is easy to die from illicit drug use, we are urging Marylanders to seek treatment if they grapple with substance-use disorder.”

He said those who need help can call 1-800-422-0009.
Addiction specialists say it’s not clear whether there’s a link between the stolen drugs and the rise in overdoses.

Debra Furr-Holden, an epidemiologist with expertise in drug and alcohol dependence, said public health officials could take a closer look at which drugs were taken and what drugs were recorded in the overdose deaths just after the unrest.

“What is clear is the influx of opiates creating some imbalance in existing drug markets, which is believed to have sparked some of the post-Freddie Gray violence as well as increased opiate use in that time period,” said Furr-Holden, an adjunct professor with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.  ”It would be good to look at the overdose data the health department manages to see if the data support these statements.”

DEA and law enforcement officials initially said 175,000 doses of drugs were looted from pharmacies, But close to two months after the riots, about 40 percent of the shops had not reported exact numbers.

Many of the facilities were heavily damaged and some had kept paper records that made inventory assessments difficult, said Todd C. Edwards, a DEA spokesman.

Edwards said none of the drugs were recovered.T.J. Smith, a Baltimore police spokesman, said he couldn’t comment on any cases under investigation. He did say there is no evidence any personal information of pharmacy customers was ever used to refill prescriptions, a concern expressed soon after the looting.

But having so many drugs taken at once could have led to other crime, he said.

“We have long known that violence is associated with the drug trade,” he said. “Any time we see an influx of that many doses of prescription drugs flooded onto the streets, the potential is there for increased violence associated with it.”

Meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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