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Interim heroin report focuses money on treatment, prevention, enforcement

ANNAPOLIS — State officials say they plan to pump more money into drug prevention, treatment and interdiction as part of an effort to deal with the state’s heroin problem.

The recommendations are part of an interim report released Tuesday from the Heroin and Opioid Emergency Task Force convened earlier this year by Gov. Larry Hogan.

“This is going to be a long-term struggle to try to turn the tide back,” Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford said. “My view is that it all starts with prevention.”

The report, however, was met with sharp criticism from Michael Gimbel, the former head of substance abuse programs in Baltimore County and a former heroin addict, who called the recommendations “Task Force 101.”

Gimbel said the recommendations and spending focus too much on prevention and treating overdoses and not enough for treatment.

“They don’t seem to understand anything about this problem.” Gimbel said. “Whether it is on the front end or the back end, they don’t understand it. The only thing a heroin addict wants is more heroin. That’s the mindset, that’s behavior. The only way you change behavior is with long-term treatment.”

The plan includes $800,000 for the A.F. Whitsitt Center, a Kent County-based residential treatment center. The money is part of $2 million allocated in the current budget for heroin addictions programs.

Rutherford said that money has already been sent to the center and that the additional beds could be available within weeks. The challenge, he added, will be to continue to prioritize funding in the budget for such programs.

“It’s probably never going to be enough,” he said.

Support from Baltimore

The report met with initial support from Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen.

Baltimore City recently completed a a similar study that highlighted many of the same needs and recommendations. The city is looking to expand access to all 620,000 city residents to help combat naloxone for overdoses. The health commissioner added that education and removing the stigma attached to the issue.

She said treatment is also an important prong of the approach.

“Focusing on naloxone isn’t wrong,” Wen said. “You have to save a life today to save a life, let people make better choices, tomorrow.”

The report, provided to reporters in a meeting Tuesday, is the first of two expected by the task force before the General Assembly convenes.

Also included in the recommendations:

  • Money to improve training in the use of naloxone, an opioid overdose drug.
  • Expanded recovery housing and services for women and children.
  • Grant funding for trafficking interdiction programs inside the Maryland State Police and a license plate reader system for the Ocean City Police Department.
  • A public service campaign to increase awareness about opioid abuse and prevention.

Rutherford said the PSA campaign was “back to the future” and lamented the loss of public service campaigns aimed at preventing young people from using illegal substances.

“We’ve moved beyond ‘Just say no to drugs,’ ” Rutherford said.

PSAs a ‘waste’

Gimbel scoffed at the the idea of a public service campaign and education in the schools, saying it was either a waste of money or redundant.

“A heroin overdose awareness week? Are you kidding me?” he said. “Every day is heroin overdose awareness day in this state.”

Instead, Gimbel called on the state to infuse more money into inpatient treatment facilities.

“Five, 10, 15, 20 — whatever it takes — million dollars,” Gimbel said adding that the state could repurpose closed state hospitals to increase the number of treatment beds.

Wen agreed and said the more needs to be done to expand treatment on demand and determine how many slots would be needed.

“What will it take to implement treatment on demand?” Wen said. “We do not know how many beds exactly are needed. We just don’t know. We know we don’t know what the shortfall is.”

Wen said she is hopeful that the final report in December will focus more on treatment.

The recommendations were developed as a result of six summits held throughout the state by the task force, Rutherford said. One of the things the panel learned quickly was that the issue of opioid abuse was a larger concern to local governments than money for roads or other projects, he added.

“We really have a crisis in the state at this point with regard to heroin,” Rutherford said. “It surprised a lot of us about how pervasive it was. We were hearing it over and over again.”