With a rate of one heroin overdose call every 48 hours, Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler announced Monday he will partner with two state delegates on legislation to fight the sharp rise in abuse and deaths from the drug, which Gahler and others say are at epidemic proportions.
Del. Kathy Szeliga, who represents Harford and Baltimore counties, said she will introduce bills requiring medical professionals to report overdoses to law enforcement and requiring medical personnel to respond each time law enforcement officials administer the anti-opiate Narcan.
Del. Andrew Cassilly, who represents Harford and Cecil counties, said he will co-sponsor a third bill to raise penalties on anyone trying to offer or sell heroin or other illegal drugs within 1,000 feet of methadone clinics or other treatment facilities.
"Heroin continues to be a danger to everyone in our community," Gahler said during a press conference at the Sheriff's Office Southern Precinct in Edgewood, where he was joined by Szeliga and Cassilly.
Szeliga, who recently announced her candidacy for the U.S. Senate, called the bills "a great partnership between the county, the state and law enforcement to save the lives of young men and women who are every day being faced with horrible outcomes of heroin."
Earlier this year, Gahler initiated a new protocol, dispatching narcotics detectives to every overdose call handled through the county's 911 Center, an effort he said was aimed at gathering more intelligence on sources of supply and dealers.
The rising tally of such calls was prominently mentioned during the six forums on preventing heroin use among the county's young people held between late September and early November at six local middle schools.
Speaking about the new initiatives, Szeliga said she is "glad to see that Harford County will indeed be a model for the rest of the state to follow."
Gahler, meanwhile, said Sheriff's Office buildings will also begin displaying 4-by-8-foot, permanent roadside signs with a running tally of heroin overdoses and related deaths in the county, similar to the drunk-driving tally signs that Maryland State Police had previously posted outside the Bel Air Barrack.
The new heroin awareness signs will be posted outside the southern precinct, the northern precinct on Route 23 in Jarrettsville and "hopefully" one outside the Sheriff's Office headquarters on Main Street in Bel Air, he said.
A model of the sign was unveiled at the press conference by Pastor Craig McLaughlin and Sandy Hartsock, two members of HOPE, Heroin Overdose Prevention Effort.
"We came up with the concept [of the signs], we own the problem here and we're trying to do something about it," Gahler said.
Citing as an example, a mother driving with two young children, who ran off the road Halloween night and hit a telephone pole while allegedly on heroin, the sheriff said: "We're running on pace to lose more lives to heroin overdoses than homicides and traffic accidents. In Harford County, we have made eradicating heroin our number one priority."
The sheriff's 16-member HOPE work group, launched nine months ago, is spearheading the new initiatives, Gahler said.
Cassilly said his buffer bill "is designed to provide some level of protection to addicts who are at their weakest and most vulnerable when they're at the treatment centers."
Gahler said the Narcan bill is needed because "what we have seen is, after the first dose, there is a tendency [of] a growing number in need of a second dose."
He said law enforcement has saved about 23 lives so far using Narcan, the brand name for the anti-opiate naloxone. Sheriff's patrol deputies, Maryland State Police and members of two local municipal forces have been trained to administer Narcan.
"Far too many times, I travel around and we give our talks to members of the Harford County community, and I'm shocked that, even with 175 overdoses and 23 lives lost [so far this year], the number of people who don't know," Gahler said. "They're not following it in the newspapers, they're not following it in different sources, they still don't know how impactful this heroin epidemic has become."
Gahler was among several leaders of county agencies who brought up the heroin epidemic in an annual pre-legislative session meeting with the county's state delegates and senators, held Tuesday at the Abingdon Library.
He said the drug has never been purer, less expensive or more available.
Mary Hastler, director of the Harford County Public Library, said she and her senior staffers and supervisors received training and certifications through the county health department to administer Narcan to revive people suffering from opioid overdoses in library branches.
State's Attorney Joseph Cassilly encouraged the legislators to support gubernatorial vetoes of legislation from last year's General Assembly that Cassilly said will make it harder for law enforcement to go after drug dealers, including restrictions on asset seizures and forfeitures.
"It is bad out there, the overdoses, the overdose deaths, the overdose non-deaths; they're driving us crazy," Cassilly said.