U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes
U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes (By Atalie Day Brown / Capital Gazette)

Rep. John Sarbanes will serve on a conference committee charged with reconciling the vastly different opioid addiction bills passed by the House and Senate, offering him an opportunity to help address one of Baltimore's most intractable problems.

Sarbanes, a Baltimore County Democrat who represents portions of Baltimore City, was named to the conference committee Tuesday by House leaders. The five-term lawmaker was one of the few Democrats to shepherd a bill through the House last week intended to mitigate a national increase in heroin and prescription drug overdoes.


Despite a new emphasis on opiate addiction in rural areas, the uptick in overdoses has also hit Baltimore -- a city plagued by addiction for years. Some 20,000 people are addicted to heroin in Baltimore and more than 340 people in the city died from drug and alcohol overdoses in the first three quarters of 2015, up from the 303 who died in all of 2014.

"Opioid addiction is inflicting a savage daily toll on communities and families across America," House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement. "Our Democratic conferees will lead the way in pressing Congress to respond to this national emergency with the seriousness and urgency it requires."

Sarbanes' proposal, which was passed on a voice vote last week, would encourage and train doctors to prescribe overdose reversal drugs, such as Naloxone, when they prescribe pain medication and other opioids. The idea is to ensure that if a patient becomes addicted and overdoses that there is medication on hand that could save his or her life.

That legislation, and several other House-passed bills, must be reconciled with a more substantial measure approved by the Senate on a 94-1 vote in March. That bill, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, or CARA, would create several new grant programs to expand treatment, but Democrats and Republicans have tussled over funding for those new efforts.

For example, Sarbanes' legislation calls for about $5 million in new grants spent over five years. While the Senate approved language similar to Sarbanes' in CARA, it did not attach any funding estimate to its proposal.

Sarbanes said in a statement he is looking forward to the effort.

"Although the legislative package we passed in the House of Representatives is a positive first step, we must also provide the necessary resources to expand treatment programs that work and effectively tackle this national public health emergency," he said.