Slamming Gov. Larry Hogan’s record on dealing with the crisis of heroin and opioid addiction, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous released his strategy Friday for bringing down Maryland’s soaring levels of overdose deaths.
Jealous’ 12-page proposal is his first comprehensive policy position since he launched his campaign for the Democratic nomination to run against the Republican Hogan.
The candidate said his strategy relies much more on treatment, and less on prison time, than Hogan’s approach over the past three years.
Hogan put a strong emphasis on reducing heroin and opioid deaths during his 2014 campaign. But the problem, already severe then, has continued to escalate across the nation as well as in Maryland. Maryland Department of Health statistics show heroin deaths have more than doubled since 2014, while fatalities linked to the opioid fentanyl have increased sixfold in that time.
The former NAACP national president faulted Hogan for waiting until this year to deliver on his 2014 promise to declare a state of emergency.
“Hogan has failed to understand the importance of this crisis,” Jealous said. “He waited until election season began to do anything about the crisis.”
Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer said that “there isn't another governor in the country who has attacked the heroin-opioid crisis more aggressively” than his boss.
“He was the first governor to declare a real state of emergency, and the administration has invested hundreds of millions into substance abuse efforts,” Mayer said. “In addition, the governor supported and signed into law the historic Justice Reinvestment Act, legislation designed to end the systematic incarceration of those struggling with addiction.”
But Jealous said Hogan hasn’t gone far enough in shifting the emphasis toward treating addiction as a public health crisis rather than a law enforcement matter.
Jealous’ plan calls for providing the overdose-reversal drug naloxone to Baltimore and the 23 counties at affordable prices. He said its a “scandal” that Baltimore has been forced to ration the drug because of rising prices. He said he would use the state’s purchasing power to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies for the best prices.
The candidate, who is competing against seven other Democrats in the June 26 primary, also promised to increase the number of 24/7 “crisis centers” to at least 10 and possibly more. Current law has established only one in Baltimore. At $4 million each, the expansion to 10 would cost the state an additional $36 million.
Other features of Jealous' plan:
• Creating “outreach teams” in each jurisdiction to react when opioid overdoses spike in a particular area, and training residents to administer naloxone and to help get addicts into treatment.
• Stepping up needle exchange programs to cut the spread of infectious diseases by addicts sharing syringes.
• Better tracking and more quickly sharing data about fentanyl overdoses with health care providers and first responders than the Maryland Department of Health currently does.
• Expanding programs that divert people arrested for minor drug offenses from the criminal justice system into treatment.
• Stepping up treatment programs in prisons and jails.
Jealous also promised to work more closely with Attorney General Brian E. Frosh on efforts to sue the manufacturers of prescription opioids whose products have led Marylanders into addiction and the use of cheaper, illegal drugs. He said he would use the proceeds of legal settlements with those companies to create a dedicated fund to pay for the state’s anti-addiction efforts.
In the short term, Jealous said, he would borrow from the state’s rainy-day fund to establish the dedicated fund and pay it back from those settlements. The proposal could be controversial because the rainy-day fund backs the state’s AAA bond rating. Jealous promised to ensure that the state remains fiscally healthy but said “these investments simply cannot wait.”