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Charlotte Meck, RN, Director of Nursing at Ashley Addiction Treatment, formerly Father Martin's Ashley, testifies to members of the Heroin and Opiod Emergency Task Force, chaired by Lt. Governor Boyd Rutherford.
Charlotte Meck, RN, Director of Nursing at Ashley Addiction Treatment, formerly Father Martin's Ashley, testifies to members of the Heroin and Opiod Emergency Task Force, chaired by Lt. Governor Boyd Rutherford. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun)

A fisherman using pain medication for a sore back. High school students smoking pot. An alcoholic and a cocaine user experimenting with a new drug.

These are some of the people in Cecil and surrounding counties who eventually found their way to heroin.

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Politicians, parents, treatment advocates and addicts told their stories Tuesday to a panel formed by Gov. Larry Hogan and offered ideas on how to stem the growing rate of heroin deaths.

"It's not unusual to hear that they and a friend or two took medications from their parents' medicine cabinets or shared drugs brought to school or to a party, having no idea what they were taking," Charlotte Meck, a nurse at Father Martin's Ashley, told the Heroin and Opioid Emergency Task Force. "Most never thought those pills would lead to heroin use."

Hogan assembled the panel in response to the growing heroin problem in the state. Heroin-related deaths rose 95 percent from 2010 to 2013 as the drug has become easier to find and cheaper than prescription drugs.

Sparsely populated Cecil County, with 11 fatal overdoses in 2013, had the highest death rate in the state, officials said. There were 464 overdose deaths statewide that year.

Heroin overdose deaths account for about half of overdose deaths, according to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. They outnumber homicides in the state, which numbered 387 in 2013.

The task force plans more stops around the state to compile stories and recommendations to prevent addiction and improve care and services.

"We want to hear firsthand from Marylanders about how the heroin crisis has impacted their communities," said Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, who is leading the panel. "This is a problem that does not have an easy or overnight solution. This task force will employ every resource available in order to develop a holistic approach to fight this public health emergency."

Those who testified suggested a variety of ideas, including starting prevention efforts in middle school, offering new treatment options to replace widely used methadone, establishing more detoxification facilities, and providing more resources and support after initial treatment to prevent the common problem of relapses.

A Girl Scout, who said her siblings were drug users, won praise from task force members for planning a "Scared Straight"-style program for teens.

Cecil County Executive Tari Moore said the county is addressing heroin addiction in four areas: prevention, treatment, recovery and public safety.

"We've found there tends to be overlap in both the problems and solutions in those four main categories," she said. "But with a great deal of sharing information and working collaboratively, we've had some excellent results."

But Thomas Lantieri, 47, a pastor from Aberdeen, said government programs leave out spiritual aid to addicts. Lantieri, a former addict, said he recently lost his 29-year-old son, Brandon, to the drug.

"We're losing, people are dying and we're still trying to figure out how to communicate," he said. "We need a threefold solution that is medical, physical and spiritual."

Others suggested that treating heroin addiction would cut down on child abuse and neglect, homelessness and other social ills, the suffering of family and friends, and petty crime.

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Some said locking up addicts is not effective, though some supported long prison sentences for dealers.

Alan McCarthy, a Cecil County councilman watching the summit, said selling drugs is "hardly any different than shooting someone in the head."

Randall Landis, a clean-cut entrepreneur, said he used cocaine for 15 years before trying heroin. He said recovering addicts could be put to use guiding others through the process of getting well.

Landis likened the high of heroin to "being wrapped in a big, pink fuzzy blanket," and the physical withdrawal to "indescribable horror, a stabbing pain and no sleep."

"And no one, no matter your degrees or your experience, can understand unless you've lived through it," he said.

He said addicts steal and lie to avoid the withdrawal. And even if they get through the initial physical trauma, they often cannot get long-term support and end up using heroin again.

Landis said he relied on the Helping Up Mission in Baltimore and his family to get off drugs. He said everyone has a stake in solving the problem, from businesses robbed by addicts, to families with teens at risk, to the addicts themselves.

"We could crowd fund for resources," he said. "But we'd need half the money we spend today if we just had a plan for the addicts that gave them detox, a good environment to go to after, and life coaches who can just tell them how to get up in the morning and face their day."

Baltimore Sun reporter Jessica Anderson contributed to this article.

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