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Killer epidemic grips Harford in 2016 and doesn't let go

The tragic numbers of the addiction epidemic, known by many primarily as the heroin problem, were bad as the hope and promise of a new year were still bright.

Those numbers have only gotten worse, much worse over the past 12 months, with law enforcement and health officials saying, that as hard as it may be to believe, the worst is yet to come.

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As 2016 began, the Harford County Sheriff's Office reported it had responded to 28 heroin-related deaths and another 173 non-fatal overdoes in 2015.

Heroin abusers look for opportunities to steal, such as unlocked cars with valuables inside, Harford Sheriff's Office officials say.

The Sheriff's Office started formally tracking heroin related overdoses in 2015 and, in the first week of 2016, began posting the sad numbers on tally boards outside of all three of the agency locations for the motoring public to see. During the year the Maryland State Police barrack in Benson and Aberdeen Police Department also erected the tally boards.

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By the last week of December, there had been 279 overdose cases and 52 fatalities in 2016. Those facts, combined with the near certainty there would be more overdoses and more deaths by year's end, were sobering.

Tragically, the numbers keep getting worse despite a major effort by government, health and law enforcement officials to stem the tide. The latest effort was the first Harford County Night For Conversation held Wednesday, Nov. 16.

Despite the efforts of law enforcement and public health and local school officials, as well as many elected officials, fatal overdoses in Harford County this year are on pace to be about double those from last year. And, the sheer volume of them is forcing the county's lead law enforcement agency to shift some of its investigative priorities on drug incidents because of the costs involved.

The event was held in the hopes that parents would use this specific time as an opportunity to talk to their children about the dangers of alcohol and drug abuse that can lead to heroin addiction, shattered lives and death.

A Night For Conversation followed a multi-night series of informational meetings at various schools to not only give parents and their kids the chilling facts about addiction, but also ways to fight addiction. The primarily way repeated over and over at public sessions is to not use alcohol or drugs, particularly at a young age.

A young person's brain, according to information presented at the forums, is not fully formed, which makes it far more susceptible to addiction than does the more fully developed adult brains.

North Harford High school psychologist Christle Henzel wrote and directed a play entitled "Addicted" performed early in the year by students and alumni for the community. The play shows how addiction affects not only the user, but also the user's friends and family. Henzel dedicated the show to her late brother Jason who struggled with drug addiction.

The play was also performed later in Bel Air at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church, which was also the location for another event to fight addiction. Mt. Zion was the site of the Shine A Light on Recovery vigil, held to remember those who died of drug overdoses and to honor those who are recovering from addiction and their loved ones.

International Overdose Awareness Day is marked each August. In Harford County this year, the reported numbers, as have become the norm, were not good.

Five people died of heroin overdoses in Harford County between last Wednesday and Sunday, and while that number may be staggering, local police say it could get to the point where there are multiple fatal overdoses in a period of hours. The drug carfentanil is expected to start showing up and causing more deaths.

The number of people who had died from heroin in Harford County this year had already surpassed the full year 2015 total, with 29 deaths from the opioid as of International Overdose Awareness Day on Aug. 31.

That day, the Harford County Sheriff's Office announced that a 17-year old girl, who "lost her battle with addiction," was the drug's 29th victim of 2016. "Her family and friends now mourn her absence. Heroin doesn't just impact a small group of individuals; it touches us all in one way or another," the Sheriff's Office posted on Facebook along with a video of Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler updating the numbers on the Bel Air precinct's overdose awareness billboard, for the second time that week.

The gathering and posting of the heroin overdose statistics began when Gahler decided in early 2015 that the Sheriff's Office would send narcotics task force detectives on every overdose call that came through the county 911 Center.

Gahler hoped that such responses would lead to better information about sources of supply for illegal drugs. Not even two full years into the effort, it was reported that the volume of calls was overwhelming the Sheriff's Office and that many repeat overdose calls to the same location were no longer being investigated.

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The Sheriff's Office and University Of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health System signed a memorandum in the fall to obtain data on additional overdose victims to help in the fight to prevent deadly heroin overdoses in the county.

This would be the first data-reporting agreement in Maryland. The health system would provide to law enforcement data on people who visit a UCH facility in Harford County for a suspected "opioid-related" overdose.

The Sheriff's Office also received state funding to support its fight against the county's heroin abuse epidemic. The Sheriff's Office would receive funds for a heroin coordinator position and money for local Safe Streets Initiative efforts. But more is needed.

Fifty-six members of the Edgewood Boys & Girls Club talked with the parents of Maxwell Landbeck, who died because of drug addiction, during Harford County's inaugural Night of Conversation.

Mike Gimbel, the 25-year drug czar for Baltimore County and a longtime recovering heroin addict, told The Aegis he was disappointed by local and state officials' focus on law enforcement and tools like the anti-opiate Narcan, instead of working to build more treatment centers.

"They are operating off of a false sense that the methods being used right now will actually change the behavior of the people using heroin or opiates," Gimbel said of law enforcement.

Gimbel, who has been outspoken and controversial over the past quarter of a century, said Narcan just gives addicts a false sense that they can survive overdoses, and he called the recent funding for local heroin coordinators "the dumbest thing I have ever heard."

The first of three Heroin Prevention & Awareness Briefings for Harford County residents takes place at Edgewood High School Wednesday night. (David Anderson, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Despite his concerns, two arrests in late December 2015, one a juvenile and the other an 18-year old, both accused of possessing heroin with intent to distribute the drug, underscored the epidemic's persistence.

The two were arrested after a reported burglary in progress in Bel Air. Police said they found 18 packets of heroin and 54 grams of marijuana in a vehicle occupied by the two suspects, according to charging documents. Both were charged with two counts of possession with intent to distribute, possession of marijuana, possession of a drug other than marijuana and possession of paraphernalia.

The horrors of the epidemic persist. In one deadly stretch, five people died of heroin overdoses over the long Thanksgiving Weekend. Of particular note is a heroin victim found Thanksgiving Eve dead of an overdose in a bathroom of what police called a major national retailer. Another one of those five deaths was a person who traveled from out of state to Harford County to spend Thanksgiving with family.

Although prevention and awareness are great, "when you have an epidemic, your priority needs to be dealing with the current epidemic," Gimbel said. "What they have not done is increased the long-term residential treatment. Treatment is the only thing that will change the behavior of these addicts."

Anyone who needs help is urged to call a recovery coach at the county's Health Department, 410-877-2347.

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