Here’s the scene:
Somebody overdoses at home. A family member rushes to dial 911 and police and an ambulance respond. With them is a member of Wicomico County’s Community Outreach Addiction Team, composed of recovering drug addicts who know the struggles, the dark horrors, of addiction.
“What the COAT member can do, which is the most successful thing, is, the COAT person can look that other drug addict in the eye and say, ‘Hey, I know how you feel right now. You just died. You just got brought back with Narcan. I know what it’s like to use drugs. I know what it’s like to sell my body on the street for drugs. Would you like to get out of this?’
“The COAT person sits by their side and helps get them in treatment. They have a brother in arms,” said Rick Brueckner, senior assistant state’s attorney and heroin reduction strategist for Wicomico County.
Although COAT has only been active since June 2016, the members have served 107 addicts.
“That means they sat knee to knee with 107 people. Eyeball to eyeball. “We are getting far better at saving lives,” he said.
“Sixty-one of the 107 were enrolled in some kind of treatment. They accepted the offer. That is a 57 percent success rate. The national average is 3 to 7 percent,” he said.
Some addicts are angry they are brought back to life with Narcan, the antidote for a heroin overdose, by somebody who ruined their high, but COAT members persevere, talking to addicts, relating to them, standing by them as they get help.
When a judge threatens an addict, when a doctor speaks to him in medical terms, it’s only theoretical. But when an addict talks to them, it’s about real-life struggles, about close shaves with death.
“I am really proud of the COAT team. I am so proud of their results. They just excel,” Brueckner said.
“The COAT team is composed of four recovering addicts who work for the health department. They are vetted. They are screened. They have to have a certain length of time of sobriety and have their backgrounds checked,” he said about the part-time employees.
COAT members’ salaries are paid by the county and the city in a pilot program so successful that organizers are optimistic it will be funded for a second year.
“We would love to have them full time but right now we can’t afford to pay them to do paperwork or to assist. We can only pay them for the work they do,” he said.
COAT was announced at a news conference in April last year, the day after the County Council approved funding for the program, and characterized by former State’s Attorney Matt Maciarello – now a Circuit Court judge — as the first anti-drug program of its kind in Maryland, one that joins law enforcement agencies, government officials and Peninsula Regional Medical Center.
In past years, city and county leaders were known for disagreements, but Mayor Jake Day said that isn’t the case now, since city leaders are fighting a multi-million dollar, life-stealing business of illegal drugs.
At that initial meeting to announce COAT, Lori Brewster, health officer at the Wicomico County Health Department, said in 2015 there were 20 deaths from overdoses and the county was on the track to exceed that.”
Demographics vary. It used to be that users were white, affluent and in their 20s, but that it’s now “all over the place,” Maciarello said. There have been cases of those in their 60s dying from overdoses.
“We as leaders are on the front lines,” Maciarello said.
“Police respond to the overdoses but we deal with the moms and dads and with the community. It has a tremendous impact on our quality of life. We want to let the citizens know everything we’re doing to combat the drug problem,” he said.
Sheriff Mike Lewis explained heroin comes from Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. He traveled there, deep in the Andes Mountains, and said it was “an eye-opening experience to see the magnitude of what they are seeing down there.”
Although the United States comprises only 7 percent of the world’s population, Americans use 68 percent of the world’s drugs, including marijuana, heroin and cocaine, Lewis said.
It’s a $360 billion annual industry. One unaltered brick of heroin costs $600,000 to $900,000, the sheriff said.
“Wicomico County is a beautiful county. It’s gorgeous. But we are no different from other counties. Nobody is immune to this problem,” he said.
In the county, 87 percent of crimes are directly linked to those who are addicted. “It’s a major problem. We are addressing it in a number of ways that others are not,” he said.
Within the multiple-pronged approach is a strong arm of the law going after lower, middle and high-level dealers. Maciarello said the state’s attorney’s office has a proven record of rigorously prosecuting “those individuals who are poisoning our community.”
“We are not Johnny-come-latelies. We have been managing this problem for years,” he said.
Since 2005, 300 citizens moved through the court drug program to help them stop using while learning life skills.
“Everyone wins when that happens,” he said.
This story is part of The Heroin Battle, a special report published in the Feb. 9, 2017 issue of Salisbury Independent.
Reach Susan Canfora at firstname.lastname@example.org.