After years of seeking assistance in combatting its growing drug problem, Harford County won approval Monday to join a regional task force that will direct additional federal resources to the county's drug interdiction effort, the White House announced Monday.
The county is the latest local government to join the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, in which local law enforcement officials receive money and analysis from the federal government to help target drug shipments. The nation's 28 HIDTA programs receive about $280 million in federal money each year, an administration official said.
Local and federal officials said the announcement comes as Harford County is wrestling with a particularly high rate of overdose deaths, including 35 last year. Though the county is home to less than 5 percent of the state's population, it has the third-highest percentage of overdose deaths in Maryland.
Harford County Sheriff L. Jesse Bane, who has long sought the federal designation, said the county's drug interdiction effort "takes a lot of people and it takes time."
"When you're a county that is small like us, getting additional resources is very important," he said.
Created in 1994, the Baltimore-Washington HIDTA includes Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Howard, Montgomery, Prince George's and Charles counties. The area also includes Washington and more than a dozen counties and cities in Virginia.
Harford County has sought inclusion in the group since the mid-1990s, Bane said.
Bane said the county has recently shifted its effort toward targeting midlevel dealers, rather than focusing solely on street-level activity. He said he has been particularly interested in joining the task force as a way to help his force confront drugs that are being trafficked through Harford County along the Interstate 95 corridor.
Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, which oversees the program, said Harford's high overdose rate was a critical factor in the decision to include the county. Kerlikowske, known as the Obama administration's "drug czar," said local governments involved in the program benefit mostly through better coordination.
"They become excelled at sharing resources and sharing information," he said. "The local chiefs and local sheriffs see the benefit of working together on a problem."
Eight counties, including Harford, were added to HIDTA areas nationwide Monday.
The HIDTA program was created in 1990 to go after hot spots for large-scale drug trafficking in Los Angeles, Houston and New York. They are now located in 46 states, as well as in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
They are funded by the federal government but are managed by local executive boards that direct those resources, Kerlikowske said.
"They make the decisions at the local level," he said.
The number of overdose deaths in Harford County increased 21 percent compared with 2009 and more than 100 percent since 2001, according to statistics provided by the sheriff's office.
Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Benjamin L. Cardin, both Maryland Democrats, released a joint statement praising Harford's inclusion in the program.
"This funding will help Harford County clean up their streets and fight the crime that is destroying neighborhoods and ruining dreams," Mikulski said.
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