The number of drug- and alcohol-related deaths in Maryland soared to an all-time high of 2,282 last year as the state continued to struggle with an opioid addiction problem that has gripped the entire country.
Last year there were 9 percent more such overdose deaths than in 2016 and most of them — 2,009 — were opioid-related, according to data released Thursday by the Maryland Department of Health.
It was the seventh year drug fatalities rose in the state, emphasizing the difficulty law enforcement and health officials have had in stemming the epidemic.
“This is an escalating epidemic,” said Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Leana S. Wen. “But still we don’t even see the peak of this epidemic yet.”
Baltimore is its epicenter with 761 deaths last year, the most of any jurisdiction.
Many of the users who died took heroin or cocaine laced with fentanyl, a powerful opioid 50 times more potent than heroin and often added to drugs without the user’s knowledge. Fentanyl-related deaths increased 42 percent to 1,594 last year from 1,119 in 2016.
“The fentanyl thing is just so scary and dangerous,” said Adrienne Breidenstine of Behavioral Health System Baltimore. “It can instantly put someone into an overdose.”
The deaths have become a hot political issue as elected officials and candidates join public health officials and treatment advocates in raising questions about whether the right strategies and enough money are being deployed to address the problem.
After the state overdose data was released, the Maryland Democratic Party attacked Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s record on the opioid crisis, noting that overdose deaths have more than doubled during the first three years of the governor’s tenure. It charged that Hogan’s “small ideas” were losing the war on opioids.
“The opioid epidemic is one of the most challenging public health crises of our time and it is clear that Larry Hogan’s incremental steps are not getting the job done,” said a party spokesman, Fabion Seaton.
The party credited Democratic nominee Ben Jealous with forcing the release of the numbers and praised the nominee’s own opioid plan. Jealous blasted Hogan earlier this week for taking so long to release the statistics. (Last year, the 2016 data was released in early June.)
Hogan administration officials said they are throwing every resource they can at the crisis and that it takes time to confirm all the deaths through autopsies, which can delay full reports.
"It’s frankly despicable for anyone to use a national health crisis to score partisan political points,” Hogan’s spokeswoman, Amelia Chasse, said in a statement. “The governor and our entire administration will remain focused on doing everything possible to turn the tide of this epidemic and save Marylanders' lives.”
The state has deployed many initiatives to fight the crisis, including expanding access to naloxone, a drug that will reverse an opioid overdose. A prescription drug monitoring program helps doctors track patient opioid prescriptions.
Medicaid recently expanded the number of residential treatment beds it would cover and the state is bringing drug education programs into schools, said Clay Stamp, executive director of the state’s Opioid Operational Command Center. The state also helped to fund a stabilization center in Baltimore that serves as a safe place for drug users to go when they are intoxicated to get medical treatment and links to other social services.
Many of the measures have been working, Stamp said. The number of heroin deaths declined last year, while the number of deaths from prescription drugs was flat.
Fentanyl is a tougher issue to address, said Stamp, who said the state is working with local and federal law enforcement to try and break up street drug operations.
“If it were not for fentanyl, we would be making headway with a number of our plans,” Stamp said. “We have to shift with the evolving nature of the crisis.”
Wen and others are pushing long-term funding as an answer to tackling what they call a public health emergency. State and federal funding is now doled out incrementally for shorter terms, such as one-year grants, making it hard to plan.
As a result, the city has needed to ration doses of naloxone because it can’t afford buy more.
“We need sustainable funding,” Wen said. “You can’t set up treatment infrastructures in that period of time. We know what works. We need to have long-term infrastructure that is financially supported.”
U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Democrat from Baltimore, has introduced federal legislation that would provide $100 billion in stable, long-term funding over the next decade. Maryland would receive about $48 million per year in state formula grants under the legislation. The state’s hardest-hit communities, including Baltimore City, would share $50.4 million in funding directed at local jurisdictions.
House Republicans have declined to allow a vote on the bill, saying it is too expensive.
One Maryland mother, who lost her 24-year-old daughter to an overdose in June, said more needs to be done to address the epidemic.
For one, Robin Bonar would like to see harsher penalties for the drug dealers. Public officials look at substance users as junkies, not real people, she said. Her own daughter was vibrant and smart, she said.
“I think that right now they are just putting band-aids on it,” Bonar said. “And they are just adding the numbers up and saying these people are nothing.”
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Breidenstine said more funding is needed to get people into treatment.
Besides the city, several counties in the state experienced a significant number of overdoes deaths. Baltimore County had 367 and Anne Arundel County 214. The number of deaths was 101 in Harford County, 55 in Carroll and 51 in Howard.
There were several counties where fewer people died in 2017 than in 2016: Allegany, Charles, Frederick, Kent, Somerset, Washington, Wicomico, and Worcester.
The first quarter of 2018 also showed high numbers across the state, with 653 drug and alcohol deaths, including 579 opioid-related deaths, an even higher pace than in 2017. Of those, 500 involved fentanyl.
State officials said they are constantly looking for new initiatives to stem the crisis.
“We are doing everything that possibly can be done to address this epidemic,” Stamp said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.