County executives call for coordinated approach as heroin epidemic takes hold

The opioid addiction knows "no zip codes"

Local and state officials called for a collaborative strategy to battle an opioid epidemic sweeping the state across jurisdictional lines at a summit organized by leaders of Anne Arundel, Harford and Howard counties Tuesday.

Despite recent statewide efforts to fund prevention and treatment, Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh said the surge in opioid-related deaths clearly shows those efforts are "not working."

Law enforcement and health departments are "overrun" with the epidemic, said Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, who chairs the state's task force on heroin and opioid addiction. He said early education and public outreach is key in order to stem the pipeline of opioid addicts.

Fueled by a rise in prescription drug abuse, the number of statewide deaths linked to opioid use has increased by more than 100 percent in the last five years, according to state data. Some pockets of the state have the highest per capita rate of opioid drug abuse in the country.

The county executives acknowledged that their jurisdictions' efforts to address the growing addiction crisis are not enough.

In Howard County, heroin-related deaths doubled from eight to 16 between 2014 and 2015. This year, roughly 74 percent of all overdose deaths in the county stemmed from heroin use.

"We cannot arrest our way out of this," said Howard County Police Chief Gary Gardner.

A state law, passed in 2013, that protects people who help others in overdose emergencies from criminal prosecution was an instrumental first step in tackling the epidemic, Gardner said.

Before the law passed, the police department routinely found opioid users were dumped in parking lots or empty cars, Gardner said.

The county plans to use a $70,000 state grant to hire a heroin coordinator, who would work with local health and police departments and gather information after police respond to calls about illegal opioid use.

Local law enforcement have dubbed Route 40 "Heroin Highway." The county often receives calls about overdoses in shopping centers along Route 70.

But even the administration of Naloxone — a prescription nasal spray that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose — is "a double-edged sword," said Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman.

Users sometimes rely on the treatment as a reliable last resort to save them, Kittleman said. In some cases, the Howard County Police Department has administered the treatment to the same individual seven times.

Police began administering the spray in June last year while fire and rescue services have administered it for at least 20 years, said Matthew Levy, medical director of the county's police, fire and EMS services.

The number of times Howard County police and fire and rescue staff have administered Naloxone has almost doubled over the past year, Levy said.

Many users cycle through the county's detention centers where the county has a unique opportunity to work with opioid users, said Patricia Schupple, deputy director of the Howard County Department of Corrections.

But few users stay long enough for the detention center to make a long-term and sustainable difference, Schupple said.

"The jail has become a community agency," she said.

Harford County has already surpassed the number of heroin overdose deaths from the year before, revealing that the epidemic recognizes no ZIP codes or demographic and permeates all communities, said Harford County Executive Barry Glassman.

Despite efforts to improve public outreach, heroin continues to take a hold on the county, Glassman said.

In Anne Arundel County, the sheriff's office electronically tags for warrants linked to heroin use, an innovative system that Schuh said makes the fight against heroin use a top priority.

Schuh called opioid addiction an "octopus from hell" with "tentacles that reach every aspect of life."

Copyright © 2018, Howard County Times, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad