Wicomico, Salisbury unveil ambitious anti-drug program

Heroin Stock Photo 2

Sheriff Mike Lewis often talks to young drug addicts. He texts them, encourages them to stay away from substances that could kill, meets with their beleaguered parents.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Lewis said Wednesday morning, speaking on a panel at a news conference to announce a collaborative effort to combat the serious, growing drug problem in Wicomico County.

Also on the panel were Wicomico County State’s Attorney Matthew Maciarello, Salisbury Mayor Jake Day, County Executive Bob Culver, Police Chief Barbara Duncan and Lori Brewster, director of the health department.

The  event was held the day after the County Council approved funding for the new Community Outreach Addiction Team, known as COAT, characterized by Maciarello 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 Day said that isn’t the case today, particularly when they are fighting the multi-million dollar, life-stealing business of illegal drugs.

Brewster, while not pinpointing where Wicomico County ranks in Maryland, in incidences of drug deaths, said leaders aren’t proud of the ranking. Last year, there were 20 deaths from overdoses and this year, “we’re on the track to exceed that,” she said.

Demographics vary. It used to be that users were white, affluent and in their 20s, but that it’s now “all over the place,” the state’s attorney said. Recently, a 60-year-old man died from an overdose.

Statistics, though, can be unreliable, Maciarello said, calling them fractured and siloed.

It’s certain that last year more than 100 people overdosed here, and survived. During the first three months this year, there have been more than 100, he said.

“We as leaders are on the front lines. 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.

Lewis explained heroin comes from Columbia, 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, he said.

“Wicomico County is a beautiful county. It’s gorgeous. But we are no different from other counties. Nobody is immune to this problem, including me,” he said. His 38-year-old niece is now in jail awaiting a court hearing for a drug offense.

In the county, 87 percent of crimes are directly linked to those who are addicted, he said. “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 his 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 teaching life skills.

“Everyone wins when that happens. This is an incredible day for Wicomico County. The COAT initiative can address clusters of drug users and the health department makes direct contact with addicts. It is time to be proactive and help people through a grave crisis,” he said.

The local art and film competition for teens allows youth to teach each other about dangers of drugs through creative works. The deadline is May 1 and judging will be at Third Friday. Scholarship money will be awarded.

Brewster said local peer counselors, who have experienced addictions, are being asked to help with outreach at the hospital. “This is a difficult period for most of them and most of them have said they want to stop using drugs,” she said.

A program will begin at the Wicomico County Detention Center to offer injections that will stop the craving for drugs. Those who have been incarcerated are most vulnerable when they are first released, she said.

Walk-in appointments are accepted daily at the health department and the volume has increased. Drug users who have been involved with the law are being given passes to “move to the front of the line for help,” she said.

Duncan – who discovered someone who had overdosed when she used a restroom in a local restaurant – said police began to understand the gravity of the problem in 2011 and 2012.

“Every single resource in every community is being taxed because of this issue,” she said, vowing COAT will be successful.

Culver, who Maciarello praised for learning everything he could about the problem and putting actions in place to help, spoke briefly, saying “that’s how we correct problems, by facing them.”

The city is trying to attract a high-profile, anti-drug speaker to come to Wicomico County, Day announced.

“We’re in this together, he said. “We’ve got to start locally. We’ve got to be creative right here.”

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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