Citizens share thoughts on community’s opioid scourge

 

Wicomico County leaders celebrated the reduction of heroin overdoses, provided information about the battle against drugs and answered questions when they met for the forum Taking Back Our Community: A Community Conversation on Heroin and Opioids last week.

Panelists Health Officer Lori Brewster, State’s Attorney Ella Disharoon, County Executive Bob Culver and Sheriff Mike Lewis spoke, with Lewis vowing, “I will go after cocaine and heroin dealers with everything I have in my body until every one of them are put away.”

He related seeing addicts beg not to be brought back from the brink of a deadly overdose with Naloxone because they wanted the high heroin brings and called drugs – all of them, including marijuana – “bad, just very bad.”

“The good news is that hope is here, that individuals can become clean and sober,” moderator Jimmy Hoppa said from behind the podium in the Midway Room of the Wicomico Youth & Civic Center on Oct. 19.

“Courage is needed for the grieving families and those who are struggling,” Hoppa said.

There has been a 24 percent decrease in overdose cases arriving in the emergency department at Peninsula Regional Medical Center even though, in Maryland, the total number of overdose deaths has risen since 2010, with an average of six deaths per day.

“The decrease is not something that is occurring in most parts of the state. I can tell you that,” Brewster said to applause.

Statewide, there has been more than a 190 percent increase, but a 67 percent decrease locally.

“We are making a difference but one overdose death on my watch is one too many,” Brewster said.

Reviewing the impact opiates have, she said they lead to more crime, deaths and expense.

“We’re seeing a huge increase in health care costs, not only from the addicts themselves but from the families of addicts who have stress,” she said. That increase totals $700 billion a year. When users are unemployed, they aren’t contributing to the tax base, she said.

“The face of an opiate user is not what it used to be. It’s any of our family members, friends. It could even be one of us who could succumb to the disease,” Brewster said.

“We want to hear what you all would like us to do. We understand that we can’t do it alone and we want the community to assist us,” she said.

In 2015, Gov. Larry Hogan and Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford established a task force to address overdoses and overdose deaths in Maryland. One of the initiatives was to involve law enforcement. Wicomico County is enjoying success because of the coordination with law enforcement officials, Brewster said.

School officials have included education about the drug epidemic in lesson plans. Children can be taught about it when they are as young as 4 or 5, she said.

There’s been success with prescription drop-off sites, where more than 1,000 pounds of unused medications have been collected. Naloxone or Narcan training is available at the library each month so the medication can be used to prevent overdoses.

A pilot project is in place to determine what could have been done to save the lives of those who died from a heroin overdose.

“We are going to have forums throughout the county and this one tonight is our kick-off. This was a suggestion that came out of our Opioid Intervention Team that was created by Executive Culver,” Brewster said.

Recovering addicts, who have been clean at least two years, may volunteer to respond to the hospital with overdose victims. “We’ve seen a drastic decline with that program,” she said.

In the spring of 2016, there was a peak in overdoses and she and former State’s Attorney Matt Maciarello, worried and brainstorming for solutions, had discussions, sometimes talking well after midnight.

“We were so concerned about these issues. We started moving forward with our planning and saying ‘What in the world can we do? We need 24-hour access to treatment but we know state dollars are not there to do that, so we need a bridge to treatment,’” she said.

Culver credited Maciarello and Brewster for their work and the County Council for funding $110,000 to fight the war on drugs two years ago and more than $200,000 last year.

Sheriff Mike Lewis, center, and deputies from the Wicomico County Sheriff’s Office and Community Action Team discuss an Aug. 24 arrest that resulted in the recovery of 7.4 grams of cocaine, 76.3 grams of marijuana, 2 grams of heroin, 87 Xanax pills, 50 22-caliber bullets, $5,700.00 in cash, digital scales, packaging material and cell phones.

“There’s a lot more to it than just the money. It’s the passion. It’s the love of the people,” he said.

He credited the COAT program, an acronym for Community Outreach Addictions Team.

“We’re very proud of our success but at the same time, we’re not successful enough because we still have deaths and we still have overdoses. Please let us know what we can do to help make it better,” Culver said.

Disharoon said the Wicomico County’s State’s Attorney’s Office is the only one in Maryland that has a heroin-specific prosecutor, who compiles statistics, attends board meetings and prosecutes almost exclusively gun and drug crimes, most dealing with heroin.

“Our office, in coordination with the courts, has a drug treatment program. It’s a very, very intensive program. We look at crimes that are committed primarily because of addictions issues … they are not typically your violent crimes but as we’ve seen recently people have robbed banks or robbed convenience stores to get money solely to buy drugs,” she said.

Incarcerating offenders, then releasing them, isn’t helpful without recovery programs to teach them life skills, such as how to dress properly, conduct themselves at job interviews and balance their checkbooks.

“There have been some laws passed this past legislative session that are greatly going to inhibit our ability because the state legislature has reduced penalties for almost all drug crimes,” Disharoon said, adding addicts aren’t likely to get treatment unless “something is hanging over their heads,” meaning a jail sentence.

Lewis said he goes to Annapolis every year during the Maryland Legislative session to fight against proposed legislation to decriminalize cocaine and heroin in Maryland.

“They are coming back again next year and they have vowed to succeed next year. We can’t allow that to happen. We need all of your voices,” he told the audience.

Disharoon, too, has testified in Annapolis.

“We have seen a dramatic increase in overdoses across the state … but in this county we have seen a dramatic decrease in overdoes, a dramatic decrease in deaths. It doesn’t mean we’re not hurting. It doesn’t mean it’s over for Wicomico County,” the sheriff said.

“Most people will not get the help they need unless we have them in the system and say, ‘You’ve got to get help now or you’re going away,’” he said.

Hoppa read questions submitted and, on behalf of the panelists, urged county residents to send suggestions to them as the war against drugs continues.

One concerned what is being done to reduce the amount of drugs coming into the county.

Lewis said most heroin is from Columbia and driven across the southern borders. Mexican cartels bring it into the United States. There has to be probable cause to make a traffic stop, he explained. If a police dog alerts, there can be a search of a vehicle. Most drugs are seized during traffic stops, the sheriff said.

“We cannot simply go into a home because we believe they have drugs,” he said, outlining the legal steps necessary to obtain a search warrant.

In response to another inquiry, Brewer said newly released inmates are most vulnerable to overdose during the first two weeks after being released.

One person in the audience submitted a question asking what is being done to help the homeless, since most newly released inmates don’t have anywhere to live.

Culver agreed more residential treatment programs are needed and said a former hotel would be a good place for one. Lewis, though, took a stronger stand.

“The time has come. I firmly believe it and if my speaking out will make that happen quicker, than I’m all for that.

“I see so many people who want to do well, but they feel they don’t have the worth to go out there and get a job … it’s time we all step up to the plate and make sure we get some type of transitional housing for them,” Lewis said, to applause.

Replying to another concern, Disharoon said some doctors from out of town come to Wicomico County and open two-room offices, one waiting room and one examination room, and abuse their ability to prescribe drugs.

“But the good doctors in our town are very conscientious about what they are prescribing.

“I will ask you to please guard your medications. You might miss the signs of heroin addiction. You might not know that your child is starting to sample with opioids. Guard your medication because that’s how it starts,” she said.

“It starts by pain management. It starts by just this pill the doctor prescribed and it must be safe because it comes from a doctor. They’ve had it a couple times at a party. That’s how it starts,” Disharoon said.

First-time offenders don’t usually end up in drug court, she added. Drug court, she said, is for repeat offenders and “often an excuse to get out of jail.”

“That’s OK because when they get into treatment, it turns into something so much better for them. It’s an extremely strenuous program. If they graduate from that program, they usually stay on track,” Disharoon said.

A recovering addict who has been clean 14 months submitted a question asking to volunteer for COAT now, and not have to wait two years. Brewster explained it’s a state requirement.

“Keep us on your radar and we will keep you on our radar as well, so when you hit that two years we’ll be glad to talk to you,” Brewster said.

Answering a question about what is being done to help babies who are born addicted, Brewster said there is a signed agreement that COAT members will respond to the child advocacy center where babies and mothers seek  care.

“We will try to help them receive treatment, whether it’s substance treatment or mental health or whatever they need so they can keep their child with them and the child can live a successful life,” she said.

One person recommended natural remedies and yoga for recovery instead of promoting more drugs as a solution.

Brewster said medication-assisted treatment is not the only option. Others are offered, but not yoga “because it is not a service we can actually get paid for and when you are a business you have to get paid for services.”

Replying to a question about reducing stigma of drug addiction, Brewster said the health department will host a workshop.

Concerning opening a detox unit at PRMC, Brewster said it has been discussed.

The topic turned to the Justice Reinvestment Act, which, according to the Maryland Alliance for Justice Reform Website, “seeks to reduce Maryland’s prison population and use the savings to provide for more effective treatment to offenders, before, during, and after incarceration.”

The intention is to reduce the likelihood of reoffending and to benefit victims and families.

Culver said the idea is to decrease the population of Maryland prisons, which are expensive to operate.

Lewis said it’s frustrating that those convicted are released in a year or two “because they are considered non-violent offenders.”

“Are they kidding me?” Lewis said, adding 87 percent of violent crimes are drug related.

“We Americans only make up 7 percent of the world’s total population, yet 68 percent of the world’s total drugs are consumed here every year. Why? Because we are the wealthiest nation in the world … We are the largest consumers in the world for illegal narcotics,” the sheriff said.

Addressing a question asking if drug dealers should be charged with murder for selling heroin, if the user dies from an overdose, Disharoon said they should be, but it would be difficult to prove intent to kill.

“Take fentanyl. We don’t even want police officers to touch it. It’s just so deadly. In the case of heroin laced with fentanyl, we would have to prove the drug dealer knew the heroin was laced with fentanyl. Unless he admitted it, that would be incredibly hard to do,” she said.

“You’d have to figure out who sold it to them. And that in itself is a task. And then you’d have to determine, did they know it was laced with fentanyl? And most likely they did not because it’s a chain,” she said.

“It would be very difficult to prove that somebody sold someone heroin with the intent to kill them.”

 

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