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Md. heroin task force urges more treatment for addicts, crackdown on dealers

A state task force created to combat a growing heroin and opiate problem in Maryland issued its final set of nearly three dozen recommendations to Gov. Larry Hogan.

The final report of the Maryland Heroin and Opioid Emergency Task Force contains 33 recommendations ranging from expansion of treatment services and drug prevention education as well as expanded law enforcement efforts, including the use of the Maryland National Guard, expansion of the state’s racketeering and corruption laws and a  measure to impose criminal sanctions on dealers who provide drugs that result in an overdose. The 142-page report does not, however, contain estimates on the costs of implementing any of the proposals.

“The governor will review the recommendations and then move forward with the next steps,” said Douglass Mayer, a Hogan spokesman.

Some of the recommendations could be implemented at the state agency level. Others that might need approval of the General Assembly could become part of Hogan’s legislative package, according to Mayer.

The report calls on the legislature to:

  • Toughen the state’s racketeering and corruptions laws by making them more like federal statutes.
  • Impose criminal sanctions for dealers who sell doses of drugs that result in fatal overdoses, a measure that died in the General Assembly last year.
  • Create a day reporting center and imposition of swift and certain punishments for those on probation.

The recommendations appear to come from proposals under discussion by the state Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council, which was created by the legislature earlier this year.

Included in the recommendations is a call to expand the use of the Maryland National Guard Counterdrug Program. The unit, which has been in existence since 1989, is federally funded. Its $2.7 million budget last year employed 29 full-time criminal analysts and drug prevention specialists who conduct outreach at area schools, according to Lt. Col. Charles Kohler, a spokesman for the state Military Department.

The program also provides air surveillance assistance to local law enforcement agencies and was involved in about a dozen operations involving 389 flight hours that resulted in more than 100 arrests as well as the seizure of drugs, vehicles and money.

Kohler said officials hope to expand the number of analysts in the program to allow local police departments to put more officers out on the street.

This is the second set of recommendations offered by the group formed by Hogan earlier this year.

Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford. (File)

Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford. (File)

In August, Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, who chaired the panel, released a set of recommendations that he said could be immediately addressed and included $2 million for treatment as well as grants to local police departments for license plate readers and for increased access to medications to counteract overdoses.

Sen. Kathy Klausmeier, D-Baltimore County and a member of the task force, said she was satisfied with the effort.

“I feel like there is a lot to it and a lot of the things in it we think we can accomplish.” Klausmeier said. “Is it going to be the silver bullet? Of course not.”

Klausmeier said she plans on sponsoring a bill based on one of the recommendations that will require physicians to register with a state database tracking the prescription and dispensing of opiate medications. The bill would phase in the program over three years.

The bill has been introduced in previous sessions. Klausmeier acknowledged there are concerns that an existing state computer system that would be used for the program may not be adequate.

For some, the recommendations were underwhelming.

Mike Gimbel, a former heroin addict and treatment advocate who was the head of substance abuse services in Baltimore County for 23 years, called the report “heavy on words but light on real action.”

“Most of the recommendations are already happening in our schools, churches, prisons and communications,” Gimbel said. “What is not available is long-term, drug-free treatment on demand for the state. We need to create a 1,000 treatment beds across the state. Anything less than that is a joke and is just a bunch of political posturing.”

The task force report acknowledges the need for more widely available treatment options and recommends the creation of a separate group inside the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to study the issue.

Mayer, the governor’s spokesman, said costs of the programs and what will be in the budget won’t be announced until January.

“Clearly some of this will have some effect on the budget,” Mayer said. “The governor, as always, will look at each option and make the decisions that are best for Maryland.”