In law enforcement circles, Route 40 in Howard County has earned the dubious nickname "Heroin Highway," apparently becoming a popular thoroughfare for traffickers and a meeting spot for their buyers.
Problems from the highly addictive drug have become so serious that leaders from three counties – Howard, Anne Arundel and Harford – convened for a summit earlier this month to plot a coordinated strategy for reducing deaths and increasing treatment.
Howard is also hiring a first-ever heroin coordinator to work with police, health officials, educators, treatment and intervention specialists and families. Police in Howard and other counties have carried the life-saving drug Naloxone, which quells the effects of opioids, for more than a year.
Yet deaths across the state have doubled in the past five years and in Howard County, the tally for 2016 so far is 23, almost triple the number reported in 2014, according to government statistics. Nationwide, the numbers are grimmer. Heroin overdose deaths have quadrupled in 12 years.
Professionals know those most at risk: Ninety percent of heroin addicts use at least one other drug, including alcohol, and prescription painkillers are frequently the gateway to addiction.
Confronting the challenges requires a holistic approach and greater investment of time and resources. A number of treatment programs in the region are at capacity and the county lacks a residential detoxification center. Those jailed for drug crimes often aren't held long enough to start on a recovery regimen, officials say.
Acknowledging the problem is only one facet of finding antidotes to what has become a public health crisis.
This month's three-county summit is modest start that is at risk of stumbling unless there is a long-term commitment to providing and maintaining better access to treatment, sustained training and anti-drug education programs and stern punishment for those who distribute and sell the potent drug.