Fighting Md.’s surge in heroin use requires a new strategy, task force told

By Elizabeth Koh, The Washington Post

Bob Kozloski has had two missions since his son died three years ago from an OxyContin overdose: honoring his son’s memory and helping others avoid the same fate.

Thursday morning, he drove 40 miles from his home in Frederick to Silver Spring to testify before a Maryland task force assigned to combat the opioid epidemic in the state. Clutching a folder stuffed with copies of his comments and business cards titled “UNSTOPPABLE Father’s Pursuit,” Kozloski joined several law enforcement officers, local officials and members of the public who spoke in the last of six scheduled public meetings before the panel submits its final recommendations in December.

Led by Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, the task force heard varied — and occasionally competing — approaches to beating back a disease that many characterized as close to heart and home. Some of the speakers were former addicts. Many were parents with children who had suffered from or died of addiction. All called for solutions to what one called a “sickness.”

Heroin use has spiked sharply in the past few years, a trend that has alarmed local as well as state politicians. In 2013, the number of fatal heroin overdoses had nearly doubled from the amount since 2010, and it surpassed the state’s 387 homicides.

After flirting with the idea of declaring a state of emergency concerning the heroin epidemic, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) created the task force to develop a response to the crisis by December and tapped Rutherford to lead it. Hogan also created a council representing several state agencies — including Maryland State Police, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the state’s Department of Education — to coordinate their response.

In October, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D) convened a similar task force.It is scheduled to issue its recommendations this month.

“Addiction is a disease, and we will not be able to just arrest our way out of this crisis,” Hogan said at the time.

Rutherford has stepped into a more public role in the past few weeks, filling in for Hogan at some events and meetings since the governor announced last month that he has cancer. But tackling the heroin epidemic has been Rutherford’s signature issue.

On Thursday, many called for a more nuanced approach to treatment and rehabilitation, focusing on such structural problems as education and access to health care.

Pamela Creekmur, the health officer for Prince George’s County, called for more data collection and action at the middle-school level. “That’s where the quiet revolution is occurring,” she said. “High school is almost too late.”

Uma S. Ahluwalia, Montgomery County’s director of health and human services, described the extreme disparity between addicts with access to treatment options and those struggling in poverty.

“Heroin’s cutting across all socioeconomic groups,” she said. “Nobody talks about parity between private insurance and what Medicaid covers.”

Others proposed stronger measures to support addicts in recovery and decrease heroin use. Montgomery County Circuit Court Associate Judge Nelson W. Rupp Jr., who has presided over drug court, pressed for longer stays and stringent curfew regulations, noting that “the longer a person stays in a program, the longer they’re subjected to the requirements of drug court . . . the greater the likelihood is that they will stay clean and sober,” he said.

Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy suggested raising the charges and penalties for drug dealing to deter heroin use.

“Especially in my community, I just don’t think people get it,” he said. “[They] don’t look for the telltale signs of addiction in their own families.”

Rutherford, who asked questions throughout the discussion, agreed with calls for a multipronged approach.

“We need to stop the pipeline of new users,” he said, including “treatment, support [and] recovery efforts.”

The task force, he said, plans to release an interim report in August summarizing its findings before a final report is issued at the end of the year.

He cautioned members of the public to be patient.

“This problem didn’t start overnight,” he said. “We’re not going to be able to address it overnight, either.”

The meeting stretched long after its scheduled end as speakers talked through the beeps that marked their time limits. But task force members seemed loath to cut the testimony short.

Kozloski had attended a previous summit in Hagerstown in May but said that his comments had been limited because that meeting also ran long. On Thursday, he sat through dozens of speakers, taking notes in the margins of the summit agenda, before stepping up to the mike — nearly an hour after the meeting was supposed to end — to share his story again.

“My son died two days out of rehab,” he said, urging the task force’s members to hold doctors more accountable for prescribing medication and describing the heroin epidemic as “the new cancer in every family.”

“I hope and pray that no one else or their family has to go through what my family and I have experienced,” he said. “It will live with us forever.”