Days End Farm Horse Rescue's Erin Ochoa watches a presentation on the opioid epidemic in a meeting room next to County Executive Allan Kittleman's office in Ellicott City. O
Days End Farm Horse Rescue's Erin Ochoa watches a presentation on the opioid epidemic in a meeting room next to County Executive Allan Kittleman's office in Ellicott City. O (Jen Rynda / BSMG)

It is easy to look at the latest overdose numbers and wonder why Baltimore can’t get it together to address the opioid epidemic. The rest of the state saw a noticeable dip in deaths from drugs, according to a recent health department report that offers a glimmer of hope that some of the prevention efforts are starting to work.

Then there was Baltimore, which bucked the trend in the wrong direction.

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Drug and alcohol-related deaths totaled 1,182 statewide in the first six months of the year, or 150 fewer than the previous year. Nearly 90% were opioid-related, according to data from the Maryland Department of Health and the state’s Opioid Operational Command Center. Meanwhile, Baltimore recorded that five more people lost their lives to substance abuse.

There is clearly more work to do across the state if the crisis is ever to end. But before we demonize Baltimore for its lack of progress, it’s meaningful to look at what factors are at play in a high-poverty city dealing with generations of social ills less common in the suburbs and countryside.

Baltimore’s population is more prone to problems that lead to people turning to drugs or drinking alcohol at unhealthy levels to. cope. The poverty rate is higher. The violence rate is higher. Children are more likely to be exposed to traumatic events that are never addressed.

A group of volunteers cleaning up West Baltimore help revive one of two men who had apparently overdosed on the same block they were working on.
A group of volunteers cleaning up West Baltimore help revive one of two men who had apparently overdosed on the same block they were working on. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Plus, let’s face it, the city is known for easy access to drugs that also, unfortunately, fuels high rates of crime. Just last month, St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church closed a park where it allowed homeless people to camp because dealers were peddling drugs to the vulnerable group. Other non-profits trying to help the disadvantaged also have said their clients, who are trying to do the right thing and state clean, often become the targets of unscrupulous drug dealers.

On a more helpful note, Baltimore also is home to a good number of addiction, health and social services programs (though still not enough to fill the need) that draw people from other counties with fewer offerings. Word gets out, and people make their way to the city to get help with their addiction, even though they live elsewhere.

Nobody is trying to turn people away from the city, but understanding the dynamics at play can help determine how to service those addicted to drugs and prevent more deaths.

Advocates say there is a need for more crisis services, or being able to address when someone is in distress, and not just through the hospital emergency room, which is not the ideal setting for treating addiction; a lifelong process. People caught up in a cycle of drug use need someone who can try to steer them to long-term treatment and not just address the immediate health issue.

An $849,000 grant from the state awarded to Behavioral Health System Baltimore will help on that front. The group will be able to boost staffing of its Mobile Crisis Team that helps people facing a drug calamity late at night. While this will go a long way in helping people when they are at their most vulnerable, similar services are needed 24 hours a day. Addiction has no time preference for when it will take over someone’s life.

That is just a start of what can be done in the city.

One thing that is sure is that before the state can claim success in its opioid fight, it will have to address the disparities in Baltimore, which plays a large role in the use of drugs in Maryland. Baltimore health officials have argued endlessly that the city should get more state funding because they deal with more of the problem. The latest overdose statistics only prove this point. We hope that state officials are paying attention.

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