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Mayor appoints task force to study heroin, substance abuse

How many heroin users are there in Baltimore? Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake wants to find out.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake plans to announce a new task force Wednesday that will spend the next nine months studying heroin and substance abuse in Baltimore and developing ideas for the city to better coordinate treatment options.

Rawlings-Blake envisions the task force as a way to help residents understand the scope of the heroin problem in the city. Officials say deaths from heroin overdoses have outnumbered those from any other drug for each of the past seven years.

"Like all communities, Baltimore is home to people with substance use disorders who need access to affordable treatment and support," Rawlings-Blake said in a statement. "They are our friends, neighbors and relatives and we as a community should do more to help them recover."

Officials have estimated the number of heroin addicts in the city at 11,000. The task force is charged with evaluating whether the actual number is higher.

Officials believe 20,000 people in Baltimore are addicted to illegal drugs.

Kevin Harris, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, said the task force will look for ways to promote better relations with communities where methadone clinics are located. Residents in the North Baltimore neighborhood of Harwood have protested a planned clinic.

"The task force is going to be looking at how we better balance the needs of people who need access to treatment and the legitimate concerns of some communities that worry about a proliferation of methadone clinics," Harris said.

Harris said the city's ability to regulate the clinics is restricted by federal law, but the group can research ways to improve the way clinics might impact a neighborhood.

The quasi-public Behavioral Health System Baltimore is to oversee the group, which will number about 50 people. Members are to include representatives from law enforcement, faith groups and the mayor's office.

Bernard McBride, president of the system and co-chairman of the task force, said it will be split into four working groups that will focus on different components of the issue. One is to investigate how to create better interaction between programs and communities; one is to focus on practice standards, to promote better quality and effectiveness; and another is to look at data so the city can accurately document the scope of the issue. The last is to evaluate access to care and identify unmet need.

"We still have a pretty fragmented system of managing services," McBride said. He said services now are administered by a network of providers with different funding sources and reporting standards.

"We hope in the end this gives us a good foundation for understanding where we are," he said. "Let's take a deep breath and get us all on the same page about the scope of the challenge."

Of the 246 deaths due to intoxication in Baltimore last year, 150 involved heroin. Between January and March, the latest date for which data was available, 74 people died of intoxication and 48 involved heroin.

The city's interim health commissioner, Dr. Jacquelyn Duval-Harvey, said one of the greatest strengths of the task force is its focus on the many facets that make managing and treating substance abuse a challenge, including consequences to a community and the stigma people addicted to heroin may face.

She said she wants the task force to figure out how to improve treatment in the city and create a more powerful social and psychological recovery network.

"If those conditions are managed well, there is no reason to think we cannot do better in the city," Duval-Harvey said.

The task force is due to report back to the mayor next July.

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