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Town hall meeting on heroin epidemic brings out fighting spirit in Harford

With a standing-room-only crowd featuring everyone from community and government leaders to recovering addicts, Harford County's town hall meeting on heroin abuse Wednesday evening was partly a call to arms, partly a community-wide support group.

The meeting room at Harford Community College's Darlington Hall, which can hold 260 people, was packed with people expressing their determination to end a tide of heroin abuse that law enforcement officials say has claimed at least 21 lives in the county this year.

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"We shouldn't despair. We can defeat this as a community, and we can slay this Goliath, this dragon of heroin," said County Executive Barry Glassman, who set the stage with a battle cry against the drug.

Having made the heroin fight a key focus for his administration, Glassman compared it Wednesday to David defeating the giant Goliath in the Bible.

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As David killed the giant with five stones, Glassman said the county must use the five stones of education, treatment, enforcement and "two intangibles," persistence and faith.

The casualties continue to mount, two more non-fatal overdoses occurred just that afternoon, Erik Robey, leader of Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler's HOPE (Heroin Overdose Prevention Effort) group, told the crowd.

The 21 fatal overdoses include one from Saturday night, when a husband and wife overdosed on heroin in Havre de Grace, Gahler said. The husband survived; the wife did not.

"These are not just numbers, these are lives that have been lost," the sheriff said.

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Emotional responses

As recovering addict after addict stood up to share stories of struggling with recovery or watching others lose the battle, longtime Harford State's Attorney Joe Cassilly grew emotional.

"I need to know that I haven't been beating my head against the wall for 40 years for nothing, because when I started, in 1978 or 1979, the big problem was heroin, and sometimes I wondered, did anyone make it?" Cassilly said, fighting back tears.

Cassilly blasted "liberal legislators" in Annapolis for ridiculing the war on drugs as overreach into people's lives.

"I think it's worth fighting the war on drugs, it's worth fighting the war on crime. You just don't walk away from a war like that," the prosecutor said, adding that if young people see marijuana legalized, they will think the older generation is "a bunch of old fogeys" who were wrong about other drugs as well.

"We can't change the message," he said.

Residents like Lou Storm said the entire culture is fighting a war.

"I see little difference between this and [Islamic State] coming into the United States and causing trouble," he said. "Why can't we fight this, same as we fight ISIS?"

Despite the seriousness of the problem, this gathering was full of survivors and people mostly hopeful about the future. Some offered ideas to the town hall meeting panel members, as Gahler had requested.

Don Mathis, alumni relations director for Father Martin's Ashley, a recovery center near Havre de Grace, urged county leaders to use evidence-based practices.

He noted, for example, that former First Lady Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign backfired when more children actually tried drugs after the initiative.

'Don't ever give up...'

Some parents of addicts urged other parents to never give up on their children and encouraged officials to have addicts support other addicts.

Bel Air's Bette Tassone held up a portrait of her daughter, Jessica, who died at age 24 from a heroin overdose.

"There is not a day that goes by that I don't think about her and what I could have done to prevent this tragedy," she said. "I grew up in the 1960s, so I swore, if my child was ever on drugs, I was going to know it."

Tassone said there is no simple solution, but "don't ever give up on them. There is always hope. Just listen to the many stories of recovery."

Travis Woves, one of four recovering addicts who came with Pastor Keith Vazquez of Agape House, suggested having medical officials tape-record medical emergencies suffered by addicts for educational purposes.

Woves, 23, said he has a twin brother in jail because of drugs.

Vazquez called the four young men with him part of the top 3 percent who are surviving heroin abuse. Some other attendees supported getting young people more involved with church groups or social activities where drugs and alcohol are not part of the mix.

Others promoted a number of upcoming events for heroin victims, including the third annual "Human Rope to Stop the Dope," set for Sept. 26, and the "Shining a Light on Recovery" vigil set this Saturday at Bel Air's Shamrock Park.

Despite the war metaphors, Gahler got a round of applause for his focus on treatment and only targeting drug dealers when his narcotics detectives respond to overdose calls, a policy the sheriff instituted earlier this year.

"We have not arrested our way out of the drug problem. We are not going to arrest our way out of it," he said.

Sobering statistics

Joe Ryan, director of the county's Office of Drug Control Policy, noted only 3 percent of heroin users are able to recover. Meanwhile, he said, 3.5 percent of Harford's 10th grade students tried heroin in 2013, and 2.4 percent of 8th grade students had tried it, according to the 2013 Maryland Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

Three of four heroin users started by abusing pain medication, Ryan said. Of the nearly 12 percent of Harford 11th and 12th grade students who reported taking a prescription drug without a prescription in 2013, about 53 percent got the drug from a friend of relative.

In the past five years, more Harford residents have died from drug and alcohol overdoses than from murders and fatal crashes combined, he said.

"Where is the outcry about all the people dying from drug overdoses?" Ryan asked.

Pastor Craig McLaughlin of Bel Air's Mt. Zion United Methodist Church, who has been a prominent local leader in the drug fight since his daughter died at 19 of heroin and fentanyl abuse, said society must create a "climate that brings shame" to the irresponsible prescription of pain medication.

"The heroin crisis is a prescription painkiller crisis," he said.

Harford School Superintendent Barbara Canavan added her own war metaphor by highlighting the multi-pronged approach to fighting heroin talked about Wednesday.

"One general cannot win the war. We have to be all in this together and we have to be working together," she said.

Glassman, meanwhile, got a round of applause for suggesting the real battlefield against drug abuse is at home.

He said nothing can substitute a mother and father talking with a child, "not a teacher, not a government program."

To the parents in the audience, he said: "You have got to take ownership and do it also."

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Gahler said the HOPE work group will continue meeting and he urged the public to keep sending ideas for fighting heroin.

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This story has been updated from an earlier version to reflect a correction that two non-fatal overdoses were reported Wednesday afternoon.

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