Legalizing marijuana will only mean more deaths, while alcohol and other drugs remain serious problems in Harford County, the county's anti-drug program leader and several County Council members said Tuesday night.
During the council's legislative session in Bel Air, Joe Ryan, head of the county's Office of Drug Control Policy, gave a presentation on drug and alcohol use in the county, similar to one he has been giving at local community council meetings in recent months.
The presentation touched off a wide-ranging discussion about drug and alcohol abuse, concerns about the impact of potential marijuana legalization in Maryland and the continuing program of drug overdose deaths in Harford, including some recently from a deadly heroin and painkiller that has been blamed for several deaths across the state.
Council President Billy Boniface said substance abuse has touched him and his family personally. His 20-year-old son Benjamin had been drinking before his fatal crash in a pickup truck on the family's Darlington farm in June 2012, he said.
"I have direct experience with alcohol," Boniface said candidly. "I have one son who is a year older and I have a son that's not with us anymore."
After Ryan told the council that parents need to pay more attention to what their teenagers are doing, Boniface said: "Parents don't get it until they get it."
Tuesday was the first time Boniface has spoken at length publicly about the circumstances of his son's death.
Councilman Jim McMahan called Ryan "truly a hero in Harford County" and also told Boniface the council president may have saved someone's life by his comments Tuesday.
"I admire your openness tonight," McMahan said.
Ryan, Boniface and Councilman Joe Woods also warned of the dangers of legalizing marijuana, a trend that has picked up steam in a number of states after being prominently sanctioned by Colorado.
Boniface said his sister-in-law lives in a small town in Colorado where "there has already been a death on the road" from marijuana use.
Studies show drivers who smoke marijuana show the same lack of coordination as those who have been drinking, Ryan said.
"It's going to be a strain" on law enforcement, Ryan said of legalizing pot.
With plenty of drunk drivers already on the roads, "we want to legalize another substance to kill another couple hundred more every year?" Ryan asked.
Woods and Ryan agreed there is no compelling reason to legalize marijuana, even for medical use, questioning why it is more acceptable to have medical marijuana.
Ryan said there are many other medications to help people dealing with serious illnesses.
The most abused drugs in Harford are marijuana, heroin, prescription drugs, synthetic drugs and alcohol, he said.
Heroin has been making a comeback, as the county has made a dent in curbing what has been its top problem of prescription drug abuse, Ryan said.
New drugs and drug combinations are also constantly popping up. Ryan said heroin and the prescription painkiller Fentanyl, a particularly toxic combination, has been seen in Harford, as in other parts of Maryland and across the United States.
Victims of two recent overdose deaths were found to have heroin and Fentanyl in their systems, Ryan said.
"I work with so many families who wake up in the morning and their kid is dead in the bed," he said. "It's devastating our families. It really is."
Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti said she recently attended a funeral for a young man who was a "casual" drug user.
"A 'casual' drug cost a young man his life," she said.
Enterprise zone expanded, new health board
During Tuesday's meeting, the council also approved an expanded Enterprise Zone for the Edgewood area that adds a small area just east of Home Depot off Route 40.
The council appointed members of new Healthy Community Planning Board: Library Director Mary Hastler; county Director of Administration Mary Chance; Harford Community College employee Virginia Myers Popiolek; HCC nurse Madelyn Danner; Bari Sue Gilbert Klein of Healthy Harford; Debra Kay Ostrowski of Upper Chesapeake Health; Rick Metz Smucker of Frito-Lay in Aberdeen; Keith Allan Rawlings of The Arena Club; Suzanne L. Green of the Y of Central Maryland; Amy Hanna Steiner of the Harford County Farm Bureau; and Lea A.C. Opdyke of Harford Lyme Advocates.
Lisanti said the new board really brings together a cross-section of county leadership.
"This is a multifaceted, multidisciplinary approach to community health," she said.
Lisa Manfuso and Rose Satz of the county's Commission for Women accepted a proclamation from the council for Women's History Month.