Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford found a lot of positive things to talk about during their visit to Carroll County on Thursday, from education to jobs to manufacturing. But one grim reality continues to haunt them: heroin.
"We got involved in this early, at the beginning of 2014 when I was first running for governor," Hogan told the Times on Thursday. "We would sit down with local leaders and say, 'What's the No. 1 problem facing your community?' and I thought we would hear, 'education funding' or transportation needs or crime. Every single time, in every single place, they said heroin was the No. 1 problem."
It was only shortly after they were sworn into office that Hogan appointed Rutherford to lead a task force on the heroin and opioid epidemic.
"They put together 33 recommendations, which we enacted and we funded. It's all over the map from interdiction and crime control, to education, to prevention to treatment, and nothing worked," Hogan said. "It just escalated, instead of slowing or stopping the problem, it just continued."
In March, Hogan declared a state of emergency over the addiction crisis, "which no other state had done. They had talked about it being an emergency, but we actually declared an emergency like we did for the riots in Baltimore or the flooding in Ellicott City," he said "It's because this is actually killing six people a day in Maryland."
In Carroll County thus far in 2017, there have been 19 deaths associated with drugs or alcohol, according to statistics from the Carroll County Sheriff's Office. Four of those deaths have been linked to heroin and seven to the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl, which is often used to lace heroin, while there have been 96 nonfatal heroin overdoses.
At least two deaths have yet to be accounted for however, according to Sheriff Jim DeWees, who joined Rutherford and other officials on a panel to speak with Westminster High School students about drugs Thursday afternoon.
"Yesterday, two of my deputies responded to two people who had overdosed and died. The amount of heroin used was about the amount in a sugar packet," DeWees said, noting that there were a few specks of fentanyl mixed in with the heroin. "A couple of specks of fentanyl is enough to kill you."
Rutherford acknowledged the difficulty of the problem and asked students to do what they can to help.
"If your parents haven't talked with you, I would encourage you to challenge them," he said. "In many cases you need to inform your parents of what is going on."
Rutherford pointed students and the community to a new website, beforeitstoolate.maryland.gov, for more information.
As the state continues to look for new ways to grapple with the heroin and opioid problem, Rutherford said he was interested to learn of the unique solutions Carroll County has implemented. The Carroll County State's Attorney's Office has launched a Major Overdose Initiative that aims to use information sharing to identify those users most at risk of overdose deaths and intervene to try and get them into treatment, while the nonprofit Rising Above Addiction has provided the funding necessary to get recently overdosed and revived users into detox immediately.
"I am pleased to hear of the programs the state's attorney has, particular when he talked about this detox on demand," Rutherford said. "When a person is ready for treatment, ready to deal with this issue, we need to be there and be able to provide the resources. If it is several more hours or another day and they are starting to get sick, they are going through withdrawal and then they only want drugs."
State officials are also interested in coordinating, on a larger scale, the sort of information sharing that has enabled the Major Overdose Initiative to identify drug users most at risk of overdose, Rutherford said.
"We have asked the attorney general how can we share that data with our social service agencies and the other health departments so that we can reach out to those individuals to get them into treatment," he said. "The other side of it is having sober living or transitional housing, so that you are not coming out of treatment and dumped back into the same environment that you were in before."