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Harford sheriff hopeful Sept. 9 town hall meeting spurs new ideas in heroin fight

After reported fatal overdose deaths have averaged more than two a month this year, Harford County leaders are hoping the general public can help them come up with new ways to fight the county's heroin epidemic.

After reported fatal overdose deaths have averaged more than two a month this year, Harford County leaders are hoping the general public can help them come up with new ways to fight the county's heroin epidemic.

The 16-member HOPE (Heroin Overdose Prevention and Enforcement) group, a committee Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler created in April, wants to see what else can be done to combat a dramatic rise in heroin that is worrying officials in Harford County and throughout the state.

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Gahler is urging people to speak up at a Sept. 9 town hall meeting, spearheaded by the Sheriff's Office heroin work group and Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, being held at Darlington Hall on the Harford Community College campus. Doors will open at 6 p.m. and the meeting will start at 6:30 p.m.

The county has reported 19 fatal overdoses and 91 non-fatal ones this year, Gahler said Wednesday. Last year, Harford was ranked sixth among 24 Maryland counties in accidental overdose deaths, with 43 such cases. At least 23 of them were heroin-related and 20 were related to other opiates.

"The whole hope of HOPE is that we reach out to the community and find some other things we can do, some other ideas," Gahler explained about the vision for the town hall meeting.

"We want some ideas that aren't going to come from law enforcement, that are going to come from people who have lived the experiences of heroin overdose, either firsthand or through their family members or loved ones, or even who haven't but have some good ideas to bring to the table," he said.

Gahler said there is only "a finite amount of space" in a work group, so the idea was always to open the discussion to more people. Now the goal is "extending those arms and eyes and ears further to get more community input," he said.

Heroin abuse and, consequently, the impact it has on law enforcement, as well as the community in general, continues to rise.

"It's a huge problem, and I say, whether you're personally impacted or not, you are," Gahler said. "Whether you think you are or you're not, you are."

He pointed out the recent death of a ride operator at the Maryland State Fair, who overdosed while taking a break during the day.

"We're all dealing with the effects of heroin addiction in our community, so I'm hopeful that people see that connection and that need and come to the meeting to listen to what's being done but, more importantly, hopefully bring some ideas to the table," he said.

Gahler said more public awareness is also needed.

"We continue to see ever growing numbers of overdoses. We're dealing with it more in impaired driving situations, so, on a law enforcement services side, we're dealing with it greatly," he said.

Gahler noted heroin addiction has meant 119 additional responses from the county's drug task force so far this year.

He also said the Sheriff's Office is not focused on arresting those who abuse the drug, even though they may be breaking the law.

"We are targeting the drug dealers in our community. That's the fight I want to fight first," he said, adding he does look at heroin users as "victims suffering from an addiction."

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After the town hall meeting, HOPE plans to break into sub-groups and make an impact through treatment and enforcement, he said.

"We have some recovering addicts, some people who have lost family members. We have members of the courts and the school system," he said.

One idea that came forward is the need to educate parents on signs of possible drug use in their children, he said.

"We all want to deny it's in our home and it's in our family," Gahler said.

Those wishing to speak at the town hall 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.

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