By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun
The Baltimore-Washington area will participate in a $2.5 million White House initiative announced Monday to combat a persistent rise in heroin deaths over recent years.
Michael Botticelli, the White House drug czar, said the new Heroin Response Strategy will increase collaboration between public health and law enforcement agencies to track and, it is hoped, interrupt the flow of the deadly drug.
The program is part of $13.4 million in funding for areas of the country that have been hit particularly hard by heroin. Last year, 578 people died of heroin overdoses in Maryland, more than double the number several years ago.
Officials trying to stem those fatalities welcomed the assistance from the White House, saying the pairing of public health and law enforcement agencies is vital to gaining control of the crisis.
"It's a great partnership," said Sheriff Timothy K. Cameron of St. Mary's County, a member of the governor's task force on heroin.
"Think of what public health does really well: They can track a strain of flu to its origin," Cameron said. "If they can do that with a flu bug, think of what they can do with heroin and tracking it back to its source."
The White House program focuses on five of the nation's 28 High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas, or HIDTAs. In addition to the Baltimore-Washington area, they include Appalachia, New England, Philadelphia-Camden and New York-New Jersey.
Each HIDTA is to have a public health and a public safety coordinator who will oversee the sharing of information, such as on particularly dangerous batches of heroin that appear in certain areas, according to the White House. The goal is to enable a rapid response, by both health and law enforcement agencies, that could lead to preventing further deaths or interrupting a heroin supply chain.
The funding will enable Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh to hire two new prosecutors "who can immediately begin bringing cases that will disrupt the supply of heroin coming into Maryland," spokesman David Nitkin said.
"The partnerships have been set up — between local agencies, the state and the federal government — to bring more attention to this problem," Nitkin said. "Now more resources are coming so those partnerships will be even more effective."
The White House initiative follows other efforts to curtail heroin deaths in Maryland.
Frosh, for example, announced in January that he and his counterparts in other northeastern states would be sharing information and prosecuting heroin traffickers jointly.
Both Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Gov. Larry Hogan have appointed task forces to study the heroin crisis and recommend solutions.
In July, the city's heroin task force called on the city to create a round-the-clock facility to provide treatment on demand for substance abusers.
The task force, which spent nine months holding neighborhood meetings and investigating the problem, also recommended a public education campaign and a data-tracking system to identify "hot spots" of overdoses and treatment needs.
Dr. Leana S. Wen, Baltimore's health commissioner, said the White House program will help efforts already underway.
"The plan is to pair public health workers with public safety workers to address the issue," Wen said. "In general, public health and public safety are closely intertwined."
Wen said the new partnership should enable "real-time information" during critical times such as earlier this year, when health officials noticed a spike in deaths from heroin laced with fentanyl, a powerful painkiller.
There were 39 deaths in the city linked to fentanyl in the first quarter of the year, compared with 14 during the same period last year, prompting officials to issue a warning to users about what they might be buying on the street.
Botticelli, the drug czar, visited Baltimore earlier this year, impressing those he met by speaking about his own struggles in the past with substance abuse — in his case, alcoholism.
"It was extremely moving," Wen said. "Everything he said shows he understands addiction as a chronic disease."
The state heroin task force has held a series of "summit meetings" to hear from medical, addictions and law enforcement professionals as well as addicts themselves. The panel is due to issue an interim report to Hogan on Aug. 24.
A spokeswoman for Hogan called the federal initiative "a positive step forward."
"The governor is pleased that members of the Maryland congressional delegation and the White House are taking steps to combat heroin and fentanyl drug trafficking in the Washington/Baltimore region and other Eastern states," spokeswoman Erin Montgomery said.
Public health and law enforcement officials cite several reasons for the rise in heroin addiction and fatalities in recent years. A crackdown on prescription opioids such as oxycodone, for example, led some users to switch to the cheaper and more readily available heroin. Additionally, that heroin is often purer, or laced with fentanyl, making it potentially more deadly.