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Harford town hall meeting on heroin epidemic set for Sept. 9

A town hall meeting to discuss what Harford County officials have acknowledged is a heroin abuse epidemic will be held Sept. 9 at Darlington Hall on the campus of Harford Community College.

Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler said the town hall meeting, which will be hosted by HOPE, the Harford work group he established in April, will provide an opportunity for county residents to discuss "the devastating impact heroin has on our communities and the ones we love."

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The community is invited to attend the meeting, which is being hosted in partnership with Harford County Executive Barry Glassman. Doors open at 6 p.m., with the meeting to begin at 6:30.

According to the sheriff, the HOPE work group has dedicated the town hall meeting "to highlight awareness, education and most importantly, to hear from the citizens of Harford County." HOPE stands for Heroin Overdose Prevention and Enforcement.

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"I formed the HOPE work group early this year to understand the heroin problem in our community, and find new and inventive ways of stamping out heroin addiction. I am inspired by the progress the work group has made and applaud their dedication to this cause," Gahler said in a news release announcing the town hall meeting. "The work can be exhausting, but they continue to push forward for the betterment of all citizens."

In addition to forming the HOPE group, Gahler earlier this year began sending narcotics detectives out to the scene of every overdose call in an effort to gather intelligence on heroin supply sources.

The anti-opiate drug Narcan, which is used to counteract the potentially lethal effects of a heroin overdose, is carried by more than 200 deputies, and by Gahler himself, according to the Sheriff's Office. Deputies also carry what the agency calls "ready for help" cards to give to overdose victims information about where they can treatment resources. Earlier this year, the Sheriff's Office said its deputies, with the aid of responding medical personnel, had prevented some fatal overdoses.

Glassman, meanwhile, made confronting the county's heroin abuse epidemic a key component of his first State of the County Address delivered in February.

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The county executive pledged he would put more resources into education and treatment, while working with health care professionals and local non-profits. One such initiative on the education front was to buy billboard space along several heavily traveled highway routes in the county to warn parents that their children are experimenting with the drug. The county also announced last month it had received a $125,000 state grant to expand anti-heroin outreach programs aimed at middle school-age children.

"Many of us have known the private heartbreak brought on by heroin," Glassman said about the planned town hall meeting. "As a community, it's important that we come together to understand the problem and our efforts so far to address it. We know that there is no single solution, but by combining forces, we can better protect our children and our families from this terrible scourge."

Attacking heroin abuse statewide was also a major focus of Gov. Larry Hogan in his State of the State Address last winter and in April, Hogan unveiled his own plan to fight the problem through a new task force of law enforcement, health and addictions officials headed by Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford.

The Hogan task force, which has held a series of public forums around the state, issued an interim report Tuesday. A final report is due Dec. 1.

The interim report recommends an expansion of treatment and prevention and proposes some local allocations, such as $800,000 to a residential treatment facility in Kent County to increase its capacity to 40 beds, and $300,000 to Baltimore for a pilot program in which recovering addicts would reach out to and help current users.

No specific recommendations, however, were made to aid programs in Harford County.

According to a statewide report released in May by the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, heroin-related deaths in Maryland were 25 percent higher than the previous year and have doubled since 2010.

In 2014, Harford County ranked sixth among 23 counties and Baltimore City with 43 accidental overdose deaths, up from 36 in 2013.

During the town hall meeting, Gahler and Glassman will provide an overview of the status of the epidemic and the work county agencies are doing to fight it. Joe Ryan, director of the Harford County Office of Drug Control Policy, will provide an in depth look at heroin addiction.

Members of the community will then be asked to speak freely about how heroin has impacted their lives and families. The evening will conclude with a question and answer session to a panel of experts that will include Gahler, Glassman, Ryan, Beth Jones from the Health Department, Harford County Task Force Capt. Lee Dunbar and Harford County Public Schools Superintendent Barbara Canavan.

Treatment providers and county agencies will be on hand with informative materials available for residents who wish to understand more about the services provided in the community.

Those wishing to speak are asked to register with Erik Robey, director of legislative and community affairs for the Sheriff's Office, robeye@harfordsheriff.org or 443-567-7100.

For anyone unable to attend, the Sheriff's Office will live stream the event on Twitter, @Harford_Sheriff, and post a recording of the meeting at www.harfordsheriff.org. Questions may be tweeted for the panel beginning at 8 p.m.

Jean Marbella of The Baltimore Sun contributed to this report.

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