By Deb Belt
Annapolis, MD — ‘Epidemic’ isn’t big enough to describe the scourge of heroin sweeping across Maryland -- and the rest of the country.
Heroin has a stranglehold on city-dwellers and suburbanites alike.
Despite warnings that one dose of the illicit opioid can be not only instantly addictive but sometimes fatal -- either in the short term or the long run -- heroin usage has increased in the state in recent years.
“If there was a word bigger than epidemic that would be it. It is an epidemic,” said Lt. Ryan Frashure, public information officer for the Anne Arundel County Police Department.
Officials say the surge is caused by doctors over-prescribing pain medications, which are replaced by cheap and easy-to-find heroin once prescriptions aren’t refilled or insurance money dries up.
Contrary to the heroin addict people imagine, the user who most often overdoses in Anne Arundel County is a middle-aged white male.
“We theorize that this is due to the fact that (white men) are typically the people who have jobs that have insurance and get injured on job,” Frashure said. “They get a prescription for pain medicine and it quickly turns into addiction. When they can no longer get meds from a doctor or it becomes too expensive, they switch to heroin. They’re more susceptible because of the insurance.”
In 2015, the state saw a 21 percent increase in the number of deaths from drug and alcohol intoxication, according to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. A total of 1,259 overdose deaths occurred in Maryland last year.
And the state is on pace to equal or surpass that tragic number in 2016. A new tally from the health department shows that from January to March this year, Maryland saw 383 deaths related to overdose.
Overdose Deaths in Silver Spring, Harford County
More recently, police and emergency responders have seen Fentanyl mixed with heroin, which has accelerated the number of overdoses. The drug given by hospitals to surgery patients is much stronger and users are taking the same dosage, which their bodies can’t handle.
“Fentanyl is significantly more potent than heroin and is being added – sometimes secretly – to other drugs. No illicit drug is safe. We need people to choose treatment before their next craving for a high hits,” said Health Secretary Van T. Mitchell. “These overdose data show it is just too easy to die from using drugs today. There’s no other way to read the data.”
Often heroin users don’t know that the drug they’re buying is mixed with Fentanyl or other drugs. In March 2016, a Silver Spring man pleaded guilty to causing the overdose death of Jeffrey Sean Nazari, 44, after the victim bought ‘heroin.’
In fact, Nazari had sold the victim acetyl fentanyl, a designer drug related to the painkiller, fentanyl. It's considered up to five times as potent as heroin, according to the CDC.
In May 2016, three people died on one day in Harford County from heroinoverdoses, while another person survived a heroin overdose the same day, according to the Harford County Sheriff's Office.
The county had tallied at least 13 fatal overdoses as of May 16. At that rate, Harford County will climb past its 2015 death toll of 27 fatal overdoses. In 2014, authorities reported there were 23 heroin-related fatal overdoses in Harford County.
"In only a 19-hour span, our task force investigators responded to three fatal overdoses and one nonfatal on Saturday," the sheriff's office said in May. "If you have a loved one that suffers with a heroin addiction, please take time to check on them...Three more lives have been lost to this dangerous drug."
Death Toll Climbs in Anne Arundel County
Suspected opioid overdoses logged by the police department show 396 overdoses as of June 15, 2016; that compares to 164 ODs for the same time a year ago and 219 in 2014. The numbers range from a high of 150 incidents in the northern part of the county to a low of 37 in the city of Annapolis.
Fatal overdoses across the county jumped to 63 so far in 2016, compared with 19 in 2015 and 26 deaths in 2014.
While the public might blame Baltimore for heroin making its way into the state, police say it is merely a source city, like Miami, Philadelphia and other ports.
“There’s dealers everywhere, we all have that,” Frashure said. “From Brooklyn Park to Severna Park, it’s a problem.”
The difference in urban and suburban addicts is the money to buy the drug, police say. In poor neighborhoods, people may steal to support their drug habit, while residents in upscale communities have the disposable income to buy drugs.
Other findings in the state report:
- Eighty-six percent of all overdose deaths in 2015 involved opioids – which include heroin, fentanyl and prescription drugs such as oxycodone and methadone. Large increases in the number of deaths tied to heroin and fentanyl were responsible for the overall increase in opioid-related deaths.
- Between 2014 and 2015, the number of heroin-related deaths increased by 29 percent (from 578 to 748), the number of fentanyl-related deaths nearly doubled (from 186 to 340), and the number of prescription-opioid related deaths increased by 6 percent (from 330 to 351).
- The number of fentanyl-related overdose deaths began increasing in late 2013 as a result of illegal labs making and mixing fentanyl with heroin or other substances. The number of deaths caused by fentanyl has increased 12-fold since 2012.
Where to Get Help in Maryland
Maryland residents who need help finding substance abuse treatment resources should visit the Department of Health website for links to substance abuse treatment facilities. Or call the Maryland Crisis Hotline, which provides 24/7 support, at 1-800-422-0009. If you know of someone who could use treatment for substance abuse, treatment facilities can be located by location and program characteristics online.
Addicts find it cheaper to buy heroin than Percocet or Oxycodone, police say. For one dose of those drugs, street dealers will sell three capsules of heroin for $30.
If there is good news in the heroin war, it’s that police have been trained to recognize signs of an overdose and can even render an antidote. In the past an officer who found someone unconscious would merely call for EMTs, now police can tell if heroin was used and give the person a shot of Narcan, which can restore normal breathing.
“We don’t see a junkie, we somebody’s son or daughter, that’s a human life, that’s why we carry Narcan,” said Frashure on the importance of intervention.
The Maryland Good Samaritan Law, which protects users from arrest for possession of controlled dangerous substances and calling 911, has encouraged people with a heroin user to call 911 if a user has overdosed.
The state’s Overdose Response Program law and other longtime existing laws protect people who prescribe, dispense, carry and use naloxone or Narcan, which can reverse the affects of an overdose.
Response by Police, Prosecutors in One County
Anne Arundel County’s executive, Steve Schuh, declared a public health emergency in January 2015 to combat heroin sales and abuse.
Every Anne Arundel County police officer is trained to use Narcan, it was one of first departments in the state to carry it. “We take a lot of pride in that, it’s an unfortunate pride to be the leader in heroin response,” Frashure said.
Wes Adams, state’s attorney for Anne Arundel County, says that having police officers carry Narcan has saved lives, but has an unintended consequence.
“Having this almost magic cure in the hands of our police officer enables or emboldens addicts to push their highs,” Adams said. “It removes some of the fear.”
His office arrested 14 people in a heroin-distribution ring last year in the county, but prosecution isn’t the only focus.
The prosecutor is focusing on three areas:
- Hard core, cutting-edge prosecution
- State-of-the-art rehabilitation
- Proactive educational approach
Every situation is treated differently, every offender brings their own background into the courtroom.
“Dealers who are primarily in the business of dealing death, I will prosecute them,” Adams said.
The war on drugs is about supply and demand. Adams says with more suppliers incarcerated, it lessens the chance of creating a user by opportunity. Some kids, just because they’re around drugs, will experiment and become addicts.
Police log each day’s drug arrests or interactions, and work with a mental health unit to gauge whether each person is a good candidate for drug treatment. Prosecutors have also referred drug dealers to rehabilitation in some cases, and handled dozens of cases in drug court, with 70 completing the program.
Educating the public about the dangers of heroin comes in many forms, from town hall meetings with prosecutors, police, recovering addicts, parents of heroin users, and health professionals to talking to students about good coping skills and avoiding addiction.
In the end, Adam's goal is "to make the risk of dealing drugs in Anne Arundel County so high that not only the demand shrinks,but the supply shrinks, as well."