When state officials released their report this week on the number of people who have died from drug and alcohol overdoses from January to June, much of the focus was on the fact that the state was seeing another dip in fatal opioid overdoses after years of seeing the problem get worse.
But while the state is touting an 11% reduction in opioid overdose deaths when compared with the same period last year, a deeper look into the numbers finds that the recovery is largely being felt in Maryland’s suburbs and not in Baltimore, where authorities say the majority of drugs in the region originate from.
So as the state sees signs that the region’s opioid addiction problem might be declining, here are three things we learned from the report.
Baltimore’s fentanyl problem is getting worse
According to state statistics, 426 people in Baltimore died from fentanyl overdoses from January through June, an increase of 11 compared with the same period last year.
It was the largest increase in the state during that time and stands out further when compared with the city’s neighboring counties. Carroll, Harford, Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties all had decreases in fentanyl overdose deaths during the same period.
Baltimore now accounts for a little less than half of the state’s fentanyl overdose deaths, as the city had 44 percent of all fentanyl deaths in Maryland from January to June.
While much has been much of the violence surrounding the drug trade in Baltimore, the drugs themselves have killed at least 180 more people than there have been homicides in the city, and that’s comparing overdose rates through June to homicide rates through September.
It’s no secret much of the region’s drug trade stems from Baltimore. Federal agents have arrested a number of alleged drug dealers in the past year and an FBI Special Agent told an audience in Anne Arundel in 2017 that “99% of the heroin here is coming from Baltimore.”
Problems with drugs and alcohol look to be having a significant impact on the city’s fire department, as the Behavioral Health System Baltimore wrote in a grant application looking to expand its crisis response services that “approximately 77% of EMS calls involve at least some connection to alcohol or drug use.”
Baltimore’s suburbs dominating recovery
For fentanyl overdoses, which experts say is what is largely driving fatalities across the country, the state saw some encouraging news as 962 people died from fentanyl overdoses from January through June, 81 fewer than during the same period last year.
It might sound strange to celebrate this — especially when just five years ago only 340 people died from fentanyl overdoses before skyrocketing to more than 1,000 people the next year — but the 7.8% decrease in fatal overdoses is a sign for improvement for the state.
More than half of that reduction in deaths came from only two counties, Anne Arundel and Baltimore.
According to state statistics, Anne Arundel had 29 fewer fentanyl-related deaths this year when compared with the same period last year and Baltimore County had 21 fewer.
Their combined totals account for 61.7% of the reduction in deaths for the entire state.
Anne Arundel has been particularly aggressive in trying to tackle the problem, becoming the first county in the state to allow people addicted to drugs to walk into firehouses and police departments and request help with their addiction without fear of being arrested or prosecuted.
Both counties also offer regular training to citizens on how to administer naloxone, a drug that combats the symptoms of an opioid overdose, and Baltimore County also allows people to exchange their used needles for clean ones and receive treatment resources.
In December 2018, Jen Corbin, director of Anne Arundel County’s Crisis Response team, called on Baltimore City and several counties to “step up and do a little more” with their crisis response systems.
To be clear, other counties saw some notable reductions, such as Carroll and Frederick both having 13 fewer fentanyl deaths this year when compared with the same period last year.
But the reduction isn’t being seen across the board, as evidenced by Baltimore City.
Other rural counties also had no reduction during this period, as Calvert, Caroline, Charles, Dorchester, Garrett, Kent, Queen Anne’s, Talbot, Wicomico and Worcester all had slight increases in fentanyl deaths, state statistics show.
Cocaine mixed with fentanyl still a problem
While much has been made the past few years about dealers mixing heroin with fentanyl, cocaine mixed with the synthetic opioid continues to kill hundreds of people, even if the rate of death is starting to decline.
According to state statistics, 421 people died from cocaine overdoses from January to June, with 90% of those deaths linked to cocaine mixed with an opioid.
It’s a 16.7% decrease compared with last year, when the state had 505 cocaine overdoses during the same period. But it’s still widely disproportionate compared with pre-2016 numbers, when the state hovered around 75 to 100 fatal cocaine overdoses.
Officials at the Anne Arundel County Health Department wrote earlier this year that they were afraid too much focus on heroin addiction might leave the region vulnerable to a “new drug crisis,” with officials in Annapolis and elsewhere noting increased PCP and cocaine usage.
Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford said in February that cocaine “is the major ingredient” mixed with fentanyl, adding that users who “thought they were quote, unquote safe to use cocaine are finding that their substance of choice is now being mixed with fentanyl.”
Angel Traynor, the founder and director of the Serenity Sistas Recovery Housing in Anne Arundel, said in May that she was seeing former heroin users switch to using cocaine to try to avoid fentanyl, only to be surprised later when they find the synthetic opioid present during urinalysis testing when they enter treatment.