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Maryland officials to highlight 2,000 fentanyl overdose deaths on billboards throughout Baltimore region

Maryland officials to highlight 2,000 fentanyl overdose deaths on billboards throughout Baltimore region
Bags of heroin, some laced with fentanyl, are displayed before a press conference regarding a major drug bust. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

Two federal law enforcement agencies in Maryland are teaming up to increase awareness about the deadly consequences of fentanyl and other opioids that have been fueling mounting overdose deaths in the state and across the nation.

The Drug Enforcement Administration and the Maryland U.S. Attorney’s office are partnering to deploy billboards in Baltimore that will illustrate the large number of fentanyl-overdose deaths — expected to surpass 2,000 this year — and the minuscule amount — less than two milligrams — that can be fatal.

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The effort is aimed at increasing public awareness of fentanyl while law enforcement pursues enhanced punishments for dealers of the deadly drug.

“State and federal law enforcement and prosecutors in Baltimore City are working together to arrest and prosecute those who peddle deadly fentanyl on our streets and in our neighborhoods,” U.S. Attorney Robert K. Hur said last week. “More and more people are dying from fentanyl overdoses in Baltimore city and throughout the state. We must do everything we can to reduce overdose deaths from this drug and from all opioids.”

In the first half of 2018 — the most recent data available from the Maryland Health Department — there were 1,185 opioid-related overdose deaths, up 15 percent from 1,032 for the same period last year and up 159 percent from 458 in 2014, according to state health data.

Fentanyl has been driving the increase: Nearly 88 percent of opioid overdose deaths in the first six months of this year involved fentanyl, up from a quarter four years ago.

Fentanyl-related deaths began to increase in 2013 as drug users began taking heroin mixed with “nonprescription fentanyl produced in clandestine laboratories and mixed with, or substituted for, heroin or other illicit substances,” according to the Maryland Health Department’s most recent report.

“Nearly all fentanyl-related deaths occurring in recent years have involved the use of nonpharmaceutical fentanyl,” the state reported.

Fentanyl-related deaths have hit all age groups, races, genders and geographies. Most occurred in combination with heroin while about a third involved cocaine and 20 percent involved alcohol.

Baltimore has felt the biggest impact in raw numbers. From January to June this year, 442 people died from opioid-related overdoses in Baltimore, a 23 percent increase from 358 for the same period last year. That’s more than the entire state’s increase of 15 percent.

But other jurisdictions have seen larger percentage increases. Anne Arundel County deaths grew by 26 percent, from 102 in the first two quarters of 2017 to 129 this year. And Carroll and Washington counties both recorded 76 percent jumps to just less than 50 deaths in the first half of this year.

Prince George's County, meanwhile, saw a 19 percent decrease, from 63 deaths to 51.

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