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Maryland's heroin task force calls for more treatment, penalties

A task force named by Gov. Larry Hogan to address Maryland's heroin overdose problem concluded its work Tuesday by recommending expanded access to treatment, tighter monitoring of prescription drugs and greater focus on groups like inmates and ex-offenders.

Among the group's 33 recommendations are a proposal to create a registry to track prescriptions of opioids — highly addictive drugs that have led some users to heroin — and "day reporting centers" to provide treatment and other services to prisoners upon release.

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"What we set out to do ... was take a holistic approach — treatment, education, criminal justice, overdose prevention, offender re-entry," said Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford, who headed the task force. "And I think we accomplished that."

The 11-member task force, composed of representatives from health, law enforcement and addiction services fields, was appointed to study the state's continuing rise in heroin-related deaths. Since 2010, the number of Marylanders who have died of heroin overdoses has more than doubled. In 2014, heroin claimed 578 lives in the state, compared to 464 the previous year. In the first half of this year, the most recent statistics available, 340 people died of heroin overdoses, compared to 293 during the same time period in 2014.

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Rutherford said talks are underway with state lawmakers about recommendations that would require legislative action, such as the creation of the opioid tracking registry, and measures that, like federal law, would add racketeering charges and a penalty for selling heroin that results in an overdose to Maryland's current criminal code.

The task force also recommends more treatment for addicts while in prison, and after they're released — a time when they are particularly vulnerable to overdose should they return to the same amount of drugs as before, Rutherford said.

Other recommendations include expanding access to medically assisted treatment — by increasing the number of doctors who can prescribe Suboxone, for example, and improving and updating directories of service providers.

State Sen. Katherine A. Klausmeier, a Baltimore County Democrat and task force member, said she hopes the task force's work will continue to increase awareness of the problem, particularly among young people. Among the proposals is a youth film festival devoted to the subject, and additional training for school staff members on spotting signs of addiction.

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"We've got to get it out to the public," Klausmeier said.

Mike Gimbel, a former heroin addict who previously headed Baltimore County's substance abuse office, said the recommendations are fine, but more action is needed.

"The community, the churches, the schools are all doing what they should be doing. The missing link is long-term treatment," Gimbel said.

Gimbel said the state is reluctant to fund more treatment facilities, but in the long run, it would save money in lower incarceration rates.

Rutherford said that even if the task force is now disbanded, the state continues to assess drug treatment needs. According to the report, the governor released $2 million in treatment and prevention funds for fiscal 2016 and allocated $189,000 from the Office of Crime Control and Prevention to police agencies to address the heroin problem.

Several task force members say they will continuing working to get their recommendations implemented.

"The report is done, but the work is not," said Sheriff Timothy Cameron of St. Mary's County. "The report creates a road map for the future."

Cameron said he was particularly excited about some of the recommendations that addressed greater cooperation and intelligence sharing among police agencies and proposed tightening criminal laws and penalties.

But Cameron said the group agreed that the heroin problem required an approach that went beyond arresting and imprisoning offenders.

Linda Williams of Jarrettsville, a task force member whose nonprofit, Addiction Connections Resource, said she hopes the group's work will continue to shift the attention to addiction as a public health rather than police issue.

"For me personally, I want it to be about advocating for the addict," she said.

Williams said she sees it as a victory that the group was appointed in the first place. "For the first time, someone said we have a problem, let's shine a light on it."

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