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A widespread scourge

Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh's announcement this week that his office will join counterparts in five other states — Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania — to share information that helps authorities track down and prosecute heroin traffickers reflects a growing concern among state officials over the recent rise in overdose deaths from the drug. Heroin overdose deaths in Maryland have been going up every year since 2011, and the same thing is happening in neighboring states. In taking action that acknowledges the regional scope of the problem, Mr. Frosh is responding to a crisis that has taken a terrible toll in lives not just here but in states along the entire I-95 corridor from Maine to Maryland and beyond.

Mr. Frosh's move complements the view expressed by Gov. Larry Hogan last month that the rising number of heroin overdose deaths constitutes a public health emergency as well as the "No. 1 problem we have in Maryland with respect to crime." The governor pledged to convene a task force on the issue headed by Lt. Gov. Boyd G. Rutherford and to seek federal funding for more substance abuse treatment programs and public information campaigns. The attorney general's initiative would back-up those efforts by establishing formal channels of communication among law-enforcement agencies to crack down on the criminal networks that profit from the heroin trade.

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It's important for state policymakers to recognize that police and prosecutors alone can't solve the problem of heroin addiction, no matter how well coordinated they are with officials in other states. Mr. Frosh says his office and its counterparts elsewhere can establish protocols to regularly share intelligence on dealers, stash houses and trafficking routes — something that happens now on a more ad hoc basis. That may put a dent in some of the violent crime and other social problems associated with drug trafficking in poor communities, but it may be less helpful in reducing overdose deaths because new dealers will quickly take the places of those arrested, and heroin addicts will still crave the drug.

To his credit, Mr. Frosh recognizes that the public safety component of addiction is only part of the solution to curbing overdose deaths. He notes that heroin is both cheaper and purer than it was a decade ago, which makes it more attractive to users. He also believes that if law-enforcement can drive up the costs and risks of selling the drug it will eventually improve the public health aspect of the problem as fewer people feel they can afford to buy heroin. But he acknowledges that the broader levers of power relating to public health policy lie outside his office.

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That's why we are eager for Mr. Hogan's to build on Maryland's so-far unsuccessful effort to reduce heroin overdose deaths by 20 percent by the end of this year. As governor he is responsible for overseeing the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and other state agencies that have a direct impact on policies to combat substance abuse, and it's imperative he maintain the investment Maryland already has made in drug treatment and recovery programs; increase training in the use of the heroin overdose antidote Narcan, also known as naloxone; and support other state initiatives such as local overdose fatality review teams, which examine overdose deaths to look for holes in the drug safety net, and the prescription drug monitoring program that alerts physicians and pharmacists to suspicious drug purchases.

Heroin addiction is a chronic disease that affects individuals from every walk of life in urban, suburban and rural communities alike. Treating it successfully requires a coordinated approach that includes both public safety measures and broad public health strategies. The attorney general's office has joined the fight against drug overdose deaths in a way that recognizes Maryland isn't the only state affected by this crisis and that it can magnify the impact of its initiatives by working more closely with regional partners who are experiencing the same problem. But only the governor has the power to lead the broader public health effort needed to make heroin overdoses a preventable illness that no longer takes the lives of hundreds of Marylanders each year. The sooner he develops a comprehensive plan to do so, the better.

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