Anne Arundel County has seen heroin overdoses at a rate of more than one a day so far in 2014, and on Monday officials said they're putting a powerful drug in the hands of police officers in hopes of saving lives.
Officers are being trained to administer a nasal mist known as Narcan, or naloxone, a drug designed to halt overdose symptoms in heroin users. Twelve people have died of heroin overdoses in the county so far this year.
"It's truly a lifesaving tool that officers can carry in the field," said Sgt. Daniel Sereboff, a county police trainer and emergency medical technician.
Anne Arundel is believed to be the first jurisdiction in Maryland to issue Narcan to police officers, though paramedics in many jurisdictions have had access to the drug for years.
Anne Arundel Police Chief Kevin Davis said he believes heroin is driving crime in the county, especially thefts from vehicles and precious-metal thefts.
"They're trying to steal enough property or money to get them to their next fix," he said.
Davis said heroin is abused more in Anne Arundel in part due to a crackdown on illicit use of oxycodone and other, more expensive prescription drugs. Arundel is seeing the heroin laced with fentanyl that's been circulating in the Baltimore region. Fentanyl accelerates the effects of the heroin, Davis said.
Heroin-related deaths are increasing in Maryland. The state recorded 238 deaths in 2010 and 245 in 2011. That number jumped to 378 in 2012, and health officials expect the number to climb again when 2013 data are finalized.
Arundel officials said the county's 85 overdoses and 12 fatalities thus far in 2014 are likely low numbers — they only count instances when police or paramedics have been involved. The figures do not include overdoses in which a patient is driven straight to a hospital.
Arundel's paramedics have carried Narcan since about 1980, and emergency medical technicians began carrying the drug Jan. 1, said Division Chief Keith Swindle, a Fire Department spokesman. The department uses a type of Narcan that's administered through an intravenous needle or a shot into a muscle.
Baltimore paramedics also have administered Narcan since the 1980s, according to Baltimore City Fire Department spokesman Ian T. Brennan. Police officers in Baltimore do not carry it.
Swindle said Narcan quickly reverses a heroin overdose — to the point that patients often are startled and angry. "It works like a charm," he said.
Narcan kits for police come at no additional cost to Arundel because the county already stocks the medication for ambulances, said County Executive Laura Neuman.
Dr. Roy A. Myers, medical director for Anne Arundel police and fire departments, said putting Narcan in the hands of officers can help save lives because they sometimes arrive at an emergency situation before firefighters and paramedics.
"The speed at which you can get the Narcan into the patient is critical," Myers said.
Last year, Maryland lawmakers passed a law creating a statewide program to give Narcan to relatives of addicts. Thirteen jurisdictions — including Baltimore City and Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties — are splitting $200,000 to set up training programs. Some of the money is going to buy Narcan kits. The state hopes the programs will train at least 1,000 people to use Narcan in the first year.
Narcan is being used by police more frequently. Vermont State Police have begun issuing Narcan to troopers, and in Little Egg Harbor Township, N.J., police are also starting a program, said Lt. Don Johnson. As in the Baltimore region, New Jersey has seen an increase in heroin use.
"Everybody realizes there's almost an epidemic of heroin in the country, no matter where you are," Johnson said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Justin George contributed to this article.