Statistics released earlier this month show a spike in the number of deaths in the county linked to heroin and powerful painkillers in the first three months of the year compared to the same period in 2016. Howard tied Montgomery – a county with nearly three times Howard's population – with 10 deaths, twice last year's number. On a per capita basis, the Howard deaths are alarming.
The fact that librarians in three nearby counties – Anne Arundel, Carroll and Harford – are the latest to be trained to administer the opioid overdose antidote naloxone illustrates just how pervasive the problem has become in suburban, middle-class Maryland. An "opioid misuse prevention coordinator" within the county's health department who conducts regular classes on how to administer naloxone has seen interest skyrocket in the past two years, a good indication that people are grasping the scope of the problem and are volunteering to help.
Responses to address what has been called a national health emergency have been accelerating but gaps remain. Education programs, and easy access to information, about heroin's potentially fatal grip need to be redoubled as one component of a longer-term county strategy to combat heroin. Most of the battles in this national war have to be fought locally.
Beyond education and training, the county must advocate for changes at the state and federal level to fund and support treatment and counseling programs, as well as urging fresh approaches to arresting and punishing drug dealers. The courts have a role in issuing a stern message that lengthy prison terms await serial drug dealers; state legislators have an obligation to assess appropriate penalties.
The county has been behind planning and funding a county-based, in-patient treatment center for addicts – it is one of the few large counties in the state without a center. Money in this year's budget will permit incremental progress. The new drug-death statistics indicate such a facility was needed yesterday.
One area expert in drugs and addiction says without an in-patient rehabilitation program, addicts are likely to relapse at a higher rate, a fact backed up by national research. Heroin, he said, "is not like any drug middle class America has ever dealt with. … It takes over your soul."