Federal Drug Enforcement Administration officials, along with partnering law enforcement and health agencies, on Wednesday announced a new plan to combat heroin and prescription drug addiction in Baltimore.
The DEA “360 Strategy,” which has been launched in 14 cities in recent years, involves increased coordination between federal agencies and local law enforcement to target drug traffickers. It also works with drug manufacturers and those in the medical field to encourage responsible prescribing practices, and provides support for community organizations to treat those who are addicted and to educate youth.
“We cannot deal with this epidemic without collaboration,” Don Hibbert, the DEA Special Agent in Charge of Baltimore’s field office, said at a news conference Wednesday morning announcing the program.
In Baltimore, more than 3,200 people have died of opioid overdoses since 2007, including nearly 700 last year alone. While officials said the number of heroin and prescription opioid-related deaths have decreased, the number of deaths from fentanyl and carfentanil have increased.
The campaign was previously introduced in Pittsburgh as a pilot program in 2015 while Baltimore Police Interim Commissioner Gay Tuggle headed DEA’s Philadelphia division. Tuggle praised the campaign Wednesday, saying while law enforcement has been working to disrupt supplies, he said more needs to be done to lessen demand.
As a “son of the city,” Tuggle said the death and destruction caused by drugs in Baltimore is personal.
At Wednesday’s event, Maryland U.S. Attorney Robert K. Hur spoke about the most vulnerable population for addiction — adults ages 25 to 34.
Though he said all opioid deaths are unacceptable, overdoses of young adults are “incredibly tragic.”
Under the “360 Stragegy,” Hur said his office is working with Baltimore Police Department and the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office to evaluate cases that could potentially be tried at the federal level, which has lengthier sentences. He said he’s also attacking the problem by asking his prosecutors to pursue more cases involving opioid distributors.
“If you are going to be involved in selling this poison, your odds for federal prosecution are going to increase dramatically,” Hur said.
He said his office will continue to prosecute groups who sell the drugs on the street, but they’ll also healthcare professionals who are supplying drugs unnecessarily to patients.
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh said his office has been partnering with the DEA to prosecute cases.
He recalled recent indictments of an alleged “pill mill” operator and staff who he said were essentially selling prescriptions. In June, Tormarco Harris, 32, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for running pill mills in Baltimore and Glen Burnie.
Frosh also noted the recent indictments of 13 alleged gang members who authorities said were selling fentanyl, heroin and other drugs.
Prosecutors said the investigation into the “500” or “500 L” gang, which involved both sworn members of the Bloods gang and non-members, had operated since 2014 primarily in the 500 block of N. Rose Street in the McElderry Park neighborhood, several blocks east of Johns Hopkins Hospital.
That investigation, Frosh said, was also able to bring charges in the June 2017 killing of bartender Sebastian Dvorak, who prosecutors said was robbed and shot by one of the defendants.
“We are very much aware while law enforcement and locking people up is a key component of this, it’s not the only one,” Frosh said. “This is a multi-prong effort.”
The Attorney General’s Office is also working to dismantle unscrupulous manufacturers. Frosh said his office has filed a lawsuit against a drug manufacturer who is making a fentanyl-based drug. While it’s approved by the Federal Drug Administration for pain associated with cancer treatment, Frosh alleges that the company was marketing it for people with any kind of pain.
Overselling of the drug has led to “a trail of addiction and death in our state,” he said.
Officials at Wednesday’s event also emphasized the importance of decreasing demand of opioids through educating youth about the dangers of such drugs and encouraging those who are addicted to prescription drugs, fentenyl and heroin to seek treatment.
Dr. Barbara Bazron, deputy secretary for the Behavioral Health Administration, said there needs to be a change in the message to those suffering from addition. Many addicts are afraid to seek treatment because they will be stigmatized, she said.
“Recovery is possible for everyone. We can save lives,” Bazron said.
She said additional outreach to young people is also important to curb the epidemic.
Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said the efforts will bring more resources to community organizations like the Girl Scouts of Central Maryland, which can help engage youth and deter them from using drugs.
“The opioid epidemic is affecting our communities in ways unimaginable,” which includes unprecedented violence, she said. “As with all crime, it will take a holistic approach, a collaborative approach.”