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The Task: Find Ways To Fight Heroin

P. Kenneth Burns/WYPR via DEA

National health agencies, the Drug Enforcement Administration and others have reported an increase in heroin addiction throughout the nation. And they say it’s fueled by people looking for something to replace the high of prescription pain pills that are more difficult to get because they are closely monitored by a health department prescription registry. Heroin, the professionals say, is now stronger, cheaper and more easily available than before.

In Baltimore, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said heroin addiction is one of the obstacles standing in the way of her goal of attracting new families to the city.

"Simply put, there is no way to make Baltimore a safer and healthier city without an effective and coherent strategy against heroin use," Rawlings-Blake said.

The mayor announced a task force in October to probe the depth of the city's addiction problem and to find ways to solve it.

Bernard McBride, president of Behavioral Health System Baltimore and a member of the task force, said members want to take advantage of overall changes in healthcare prompted by the Affordable Care Act.

"We have a big opportunity here to take this time to look long and hard at what it is that people of Baltimore need in terms of support for getting out from under the effects of substance use, especially heroin," he said.

The Beginning of the Line

City Police Commissioner Anthony Batts joined Anne Arundel County Police Chief Kevin Davis, Prince George's County Deputy Police Chief Craig Howard and Wicomico County Sheriff Mike Lewis on a trip to South America, sponsored by the Drug Enforcement Agency, to see where heroin originates. 

The DEA said about 80 percent of Maryland's heroin supply comes from South America.

Batts, who called the trip eye-opening, said the drug fight has gone global.

"We know the vast amount of violence that takes ace on our streets is gang-related," he said, "and those gangs make their money from illegal drug sales coming from other countries."

The commissioner said he will share with the task force the importance of having prevention programs similar to DARE, Drug Abuse Resistance Education.  Batts said while programs like DARE have been cut in the U.S., Colombia is building the programs up.

"They're building them up to a greater degree.  And they are expanding from age three to age 18 to make an impact within their country," said Batts.

Where The Focus Should Be

Dr. Marc Fishman, medical director of Mountain Manor, said the conversation on how to best address heroin addiction is a welcomed one.  The Southwest Baltimore-based treatment provider has a special program for adolescents and young adults who are trying to beat their addiction to opiates.  He said he hopes the task force will look at how to help youth.

"What are the treatment resources, what is the treatment capacity, how do we get providers to be able to do developmentally appropriate and youth friendly specific treatment and think about where it fits in," said Fishman.

Meanwhile, Mike Gimbel, Baltimore County's first drug czar, said that a task force is a waste of time.

"People are dying on the street," said Gimbel “Not just Baltimore City, but Baltimore County and Harford County and Anne Arundel County.  We need a solution, not a task force.”

Gimbel, a recovering heroin addict himself, complained that the city has yet to try long-term residential treatment programs.

"We've got to get the addicts out of the old neighborhood and away from their friend, away from their dealers and into a setting where they have a chance."

Mayoral Spokesman Kevin Harris said officials know what the solutions are but for several decades they have failed to "line up our resources to support what works."

"The purpose of the task force isn’t to simply talk about heroin addiction, but rather to determine the best approach for realigning our resources behind what works," said Harris, "it’s not enough to say we know what the solutions are.  You have to actually be willing to put the strategy in place to turn those solutions into action."

The task force is expected to give Rawlings-Blake recommendations next July.