Hogan announces new package to combat heroin addiction

Larry Hogan announced a set of proposals Tuesday designed to curb heroin and opioid drug addiction.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced a set of proposals Tuesday designed to curb heroin and opioid drug addiction, including legislation that would result in stiffer penalties for dealers linked to fatal overdoses, a proposal that originated in Carroll County.

Hogan tasked Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford in 2015 with leading a heroin task force, but the crisis shows no sign of abating. Twice as many people died from opioid overdoses in 2016 as in 2015.


"It's getting more and more dangerous, and it's evolving as a crisis," Hogan said at a news conference at Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis. He pointed in particular to the increasing illicit use of fentanyl, an incredibly potent opiate.

"It's killing people left and right," Hogan said.

As one solution to end the killing, the Hogan administration plans to include legislation that would impose a maximum 30-year sentence for anyone convicted of selling drugs that result in one of those mounting fatal overdoses.

A similar bill was introduced in the 2015 legislative session by Carroll County State's Attorney Brian DeLeonardo, a Republican, and Montgomery County State's Attorney John McCarthy, a Democrat, but never made it to a floor vote, according to DeLeonardo. He's more hopeful now that the governor is introducing the bill.

"It's different when they drop it as an administration bill," DeLeonardo said.

Getting the bill passed would have three main benefits, according to DeLeonardo, the first being that it recognizes the nature of the crime, which involves someone dying and not just drug distribution.

"You are distributing stuff that sometimes you know is going to kill somebody, and sometimes you are distributing the stuff after it just killed somebody," he said. "That's No. 1. No. 2, I wanted the ability to have victim impact [statements], where the family can say, 'This is what happened,' and that wouldn't be if the only crime is distribution, not death."

The third, most significant aspect of the bill is that it would allow prosecutors to reach across jurisdictions in order to prosecute dealers who sell drugs that kill people, according to DeLeonardo. A small-time dealer in Carroll County who sells heroin that leads to a fatal overdose in Carroll might have bought their supply from a dealer in Baltimore County, who in turn bought it from someone in Baltimore City — DeLeonardo could work up the chain to bring the ultimate dealer responsible to face trial in Carroll.

"The federal system has an exact bill like this," he said. "What happens very often is we refer to the federal prosecutor, because they have the statute that we don't. My point is we should have the same tools locally."

At Tuesday's news conference, Hogan also announced the signing of an executive order that will create an "opioid operational command center," as well as legislation that, if passed, would limit doctors to prescribing a week's supply of opioid medications.

"The center will facilitate greater collaboration between the state and local public health, human service, education and public safety entities to try to reduce the harmful impact of opioids on our communities," Rutherford said. "The bottom line with all of this is saving lives."

Limiting the amount of pain pills a patient can take home makes a lot of sense to Carroll County Sheriff Jim DeWees.

"I think that's a wise move — it's no secret that we've created a lot of accidental users because they have gone from prescription medicine to heroin," he said. "If we can manage pain better that way, I think you'll see the effects of that over a long period of time."

What makes less sense to DeWees is just what the "opioid operational command center" would do that is not already being done. He noted that his office already shares information with law enforcement and public health agencies at all levels, from local municipalities to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.


"I don't want to sound like a pessimist, but I hope those aren't just canned words to get everyone jazzed up that we're trying to do something. I need real solutions and we need real help," DeWees said. "What I would like to see more of is treatment, prevention and education money come out of Annapolis so that we can jump on that. We are doing our part with enforcement."

More bullish on the command center and its benefits at the local level was Carroll County Health Officer Ed Singer, who said the command center will likely be looking at education and treatment efforts, and not just coordinating law enforcement.

"My understanding of the operation center at this point is they will try to coordinate efforts at the state level and in the local jurisdictions, and probably take a look at what is successful and unsuccessful," he said. "It's something that's going to be looking at data and statistics on a day-to-day basis."

Getting closer to real-time feedback could allow for more nimble responses to both problems and successes, Singer said, than is currently possible with quarterly overdoses statistics compiled by the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Baltimore Sun reporter Ian Duncan contributed to this story.