DEA chief discusses Maryland's heroin problem at Senate hearing

DEA chief discusses Maryland heroin problem at Senate hearing

The chief of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration put a spotlight on Maryland's heroin problems during a congressional hearing Thursday.

DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart spoke of the state's rising number of overdose deaths in testimony before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee. She said a DEA task force focusing on heroin problems in Baltimore is a model for other communities.

"Maryland is the perfect example when we're talking about what it's going take for our country to actually stem the flow of the rising heroin problem," Leonhart said.

Heroin deaths have been rising in Maryland since 2010 and are expected to exceed 500 in 2014 when statistics are finalized. Gov. Larry Hogan and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake have formed panels to address the problem.

Leonhart was responding to questions from Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, who said she is frustrated that government agencies are not coordinating enough to tackle the crisis. Last year, Mikulski secured $10 million in funding to create state anti-heroin task forces that fight the drug crisis in a comprehensive way, taking into account perspectives of experts in the law enforcement, medical, public health and education fields.

Gary Tuggle, who leads the DEA's Baltimore office, said in an interview that the agency has operated a Baltimore heroin task force for about three decades. It includes members from law enforcement agencies.

In recent years, agents have worked more with "nontraditional partners" such as health experts, Tuggle said.

"In no way do we think that law enforcement is the only answer here," he said. "Thirty years ago, we weren't doing this. ... We were stuck in our own silo of just law enforcement."

He said law enforcement agencies have collaborated with health officials in an effort to determine sources of deadly fentanyl-laced heroin.

"We look historically at the medical records," Tuggle said. "We subpoena the autopsy reports. Once we determine that fentanyl was involved and caused the death, then we focus on the individual dealer."

At the Senate hearing on funding requests from law enforcement agencies, Leonhart spoke of the origins of the heroin being dealt in local communities.

"It's almost all Western Hemisphere," she said. "But more and more of it is coming from Mexico and is being controlled by the same Mexican organizations and trafficking groups that we see all across the country, who've brought cocaine, meth and marijuana to our communities."

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