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Baltimore Police commissioner says pre-teens are overdosing all over the city. That's not true.

When asked by Baltimore City Councilman Zeke Cohen about the “War on Drugs” at a recent hearing at City Hall, new Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa said he agreed with Cohen that drug addiction is a public health issue, but that he takes “a strong stance” against drug dealing because of the associated violence and the surging number of opioid overdoses in the city.

De Sousa specifically mentioned “young kids, 11- and 12-years-old, [in] different parts of the city, overdosing,” and described seeing those same kids “on the streets in a state of mind where it’s not healthy, and you can take a look at them and you know that they’re going through crisis and you know they’re overdosing.”

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Baltimore’s drug problems are no secret. But De Sousa’s comment about pre-teens overdosing had not been reported before, and The Baltimore Sun flagged it for follow-up.

As it turns out, it wasn’t true — which the police department acknowledged.

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Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen demonstrated how to administer naloxone, the emergency, overdose-reversing drug known as Narcan, to the congregation at Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church on Sunday.

T.J. Smith, the police department spokesman, said De Sousa’s comments were just “a misspeak,” and that what the commissioner was actually referring to were “kids who are visibly high, not literally overdosing.”

Asked for examples of that, and if De Sousa could discuss any experiences intervening in the life of a child he found high on the street, Smith said the commissioner was only “giving a general statement from his career as a law enforcement officer.”

Smith also said many people in Baltimore have witnessed kids who are high — himself included — and they likely would find the statement by the commissioner “accurate.”

“The problem really is that there are young people in Baltimore on drugs,” Smith said. “And I think what he was saying was, ‘There are young people in Baltimore on drugs, I’m looking at their faces, they’re clearly high, and we need to do something about that.’”

One reason for the huge increases in overdoses in Baltimore and around the country in recent years is the rise in fentanyl, an extremely potent synthetic opioid that is being laced into heroin and other drugs in ever-increasing volumes. Even seasoned drug users with high tolerances to other opioids are overdosing.

The Sun asked for data on juvenile overdoses from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, which tracks overdose deaths statewide and in the city; the EMS and fire department, which tracks non-fatal overdoses; the city health department, which tracks the opioid epidemic across the city; and the state health department, which is tracking it across Maryland.

The Sun also reached out to local emergency hospitals, including Johns Hopkins Hospital and the University of Maryland, as well as the Chesapeake Regional Information System for our Patients, known as CRISP, which tracks data on overdose-related emergency department visits.

Fire and EMS officials said they have recorded 10 non-fatal juvenile overdoses since 2016. Those involved four children in 2016 (ages 1, 2, 4 and 17), four children in 2017 (ages 1, 16, 17 and 17) and two children so far this year (ages 1 and 2). Very young children had overdosed in accidents, and older teens had overdosed, too, but there were no recorded non-fatal overdoses of pre-teens.

Fentanyl continues to lead the state's opioid deaths in the latest figures released by the Maryland Department of Health.

Some residents in Baltimore now have access to a prescription drug called naloxone that can halt — and pull a person out of — an overdose, so it’s possible that there were juvenile overdoses that occurred in the city and were never recorded because the children survived without being treated by medical professionals. But medical professionals described such scenarios as unlikely.

There was one fatal overdose of a juvenile in Baltimore in 2016, according to the city health department, but the agency declined to provide the child’s age. There have been no juvenile overdose deaths reported in the city in 2017, though data is only available through September, the agency said.

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, the Maryland Department of Health, Johns Hopkins Hospital and the University of Maryland, which includes Shock Trauma, all referred questions about overdose data to each other or to the city health department. CRISP did not respond to the Sun’s request for data.

Baltimore Health Commissioner Leana Wen said she could not provide the age of the juvenile who died in the city in 2016 because she believes the age could be used to identify the child, which would break with laws protecting patients’ confidentiality.

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Wen also said she couldn’t provide a broad comment on whether Baltimore is experiencing a problem with pre-teens suffering from overdoses, because she is precluded from commenting “on something that involves protected health information and the data on non-fatal overdoses.”

Caleb Alexander, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness, said there is no question the opioid epidemic is impacting juveniles.

“We know that a remarkable number of adolescents report non-medical use of prescription drugs,” he said.

But he also said he does not believe that pre-teens are overdosing in any great numbers in Baltimore.

“Given the enormity of the opioid epidemic,” he said, “it’s surprising that we don’t have more data at our fingertips regarding some of the ways that it’s affecting the population.”

Testing strips that resemble pregnancy tests could be given to people who use drugs so they can avoid dangerous fentanyl, a new report from Johns Hopkins finds.

Cohen, the councilman who asked De Sousa about the “War on Drugs” and a former teacher, said he believes there is a problem with teenagers across the country “starting to use some drugs that are extremely addicting and dangerous,” including prescription pills.

But he said he found De Sousa’s comment about 11- and 12-year-olds overdosing in the city “strange.”

“Are there some young people who are using heavier drugs to cope with stress or trauma or anything else that’s going on in their life? I’m sure there are,” Cohen said. “But I think that’s not the population that is being most impacted by drug overdoses.”

He’s right. According to the state health department, the largest increase in overdoses in recent years has come among those 55 and older. In 2016 there were fewer overdoses among those under 25 than in any other age group, and the spike in overdoses was less pronounced in the youngest age group than in older age groups, according to state data.

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