(Nov. 9, 2018) The heroin and opioid epidemic has touched most communities in Worcester County – and in Maryland.

By all accounts, the face of addiction is the face of your neighbor. They are sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, veterans and star athletes. They are without a single race or religion or class.

After talking with police and politicians, medical specialists and economists, a mother and father who fought the epidemic by starting a movement, and a former addict who has made it his mission to help others, a common theme emerged: there are no easy solutions.

Nevertheless, plenty of people and resources are being directed toward efforts to save lives and to prevent the tide of addiction from continuing to rise.

This is the first installment of a two-part look at the problem.

Maryland Department of Health data on unintentional drug and alcohol-related intoxication deaths from January through June year showed 1,325 fatalities, a 12 percent increase over the same period last year. Of those, 1,185 were opioid-related, including 1,038 fatal overdoses from the synthetic heroin, fentanyl.

Heroin-related deaths decreased 20 percent compared to the same period in 2017 and prescription opioid deaths dropped 7 percent.

Overdose fatalities, however, have been going up for the past 10 years. State data for the first six months in 2008 shows 359 unintentional intoxication deaths. Since 2012, those numbers were 385 in 2012, 397 in 2013, 528 in 2014, 601 in 2015, 979 in 2016, and 1,179 in 2017.

In 2008, opioid-related overdose deaths were 261, but shot up to 873 in 2016, and up to 1,032 in 2017.

Thirteen fentanyl-related deaths were recorded in the first half of 2008 and jumped to 800 last year before reaching the 1,038 fatalities in first six months of this year.

Prescription-related deaths haven’t changed as much: 136 during the first two quarters of 2008, 218 during the same period in 2016 and 199 from January to June of this year.

Ocean Pines Police Chief David Massey, formerly the police chief in Ocean City, recalled the days when heroin abuse was rare locally, which makes the surge in the drug’s use even more astonishing.

“It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen as far as addiction,” he said. “There’s no community that’s immune from drug abuse … it’s a national problem and various things have been tried.”

That includes decriminalization efforts, which he said now means “when we get a call for a drug overdose, police can’t make an arrest, no matter what they see.” He that approach has both good and bad aspects.

“The feeling was that it (decriminalization) would make people more apt to call the police,” Massey said. “The unintended consequences are, when we went to a drug overdose before, and we found drugs, and someone was arrested, they … would get into counseling and drug awareness, or they would go to a facility. If it was serious enough, they would go to prison and be rehabilitated. Now, we’re not seeing that.”

Today, when police respond to a reported overdose, any drugs found are seized and the victim may be hospitalized, Massey said.

“Or, in many cases, the police [administer] Narcan and just leave,” he said.

Narcan or Naloxone is a drug used to treat overdoses. The widespread availability of Narcan may also be skewing overdose statistics, Massey said. His department was the first in the county to carry the drug and to train police officers to administer it.

Naloxone

Kim Poole, a behavioral health and addictions program worker with the Worcester County Health Department, administers a dose of naloxone, a drug that helps reverse opiate overdoses, during a training session at the Ocean Pines Library.

 “We don’t have a clue right now as far as how many drug overdoses [are occurring],” he said. “We have the ones that are reported … but we don’t know how big the problem is, because the addicts or the parents of the addicts are keeping Narcan and there’s no requirement to call police [during an overdose].”

Massey said 10 fatal heroin-related overdoses occurred in Ocean Pines during the two-year period of 2015 and 2016. Those numbers have since declined.

“Narcan apparently is working,” he said, adding, “We had one sad case where a woman overdosed 13 times – and the 13th time she died

“We have to acknowledge that [Narcan] is bringing people back – the question is, is it a cycle?” Massey continued. “[Does it] bring them back to the point where they can reoffend without treatment?”

Massey said opioid-related deaths in the United States now outnumber traffic fatalities. The fact is, they don’t just outnumber them, they exceed them by far.: statistics from the Centers for Disease Control estimate 72,000 overdose deaths in 2017, while the National Safety Council reported 40,000 traffic accident deaths for that year.

“Everyone is looking for a solution – everyone is looking for a magic bullet in the case of opioid addiction, but I don’t think there is one,” he said.

 “We see elderly people who were on pills. I’ve seen 61-year-olds … and young people also,” Massey said. “The first time you take heroin you can become addicted – it’s a one-shot poison.”

Ocean City Firefighter Paramedics Association President Ryan Whittington said the heroin epidemic reached Ocean City about four or five years ago. And then it got worse. Whittington said EMS personnel began to see heroin laced with additives such as fentanyl “that were making it much more deadly.”

“In Ocean City and West Ocean City, we see our share of overdoses,” he said. “When it comes to an overdose call, your situational awareness is always something that’s on high alert.

“You’re looking to make sure that you’re not poked with a needle, you don’t kneel on a needle, that if it is laced with something, there’s no residue laying around so that you’d don’t inadvertently touch it … you don’t want it to come through your skin,” Whittington continued. “Your level of awareness is up and you know that, when it comes to an overdose call, seconds matter and you have to be ready to administer your drugs, your oxygen, assist with respiratory efforts – there’s so many things that go on.”

Whittington said Ocean City firefighter-paramedics use Naloxone on overdose victims, per Maryland Medical Protocols,

He credited Gov. Larry Hogan’s Heroin and Opioid Emergency Task Force, the interagency coordinating council begun in 2015, with making Naloxone available to the majority of first responders.

 “The heroin epidemic is one of the things that I really saw unite all public safety, all communities,” he said.

A Former Addict’s Take: Tom Mcgrath

Mcgrath is a former resident at Ottey’s recovery house in Wicomico County. He’s 29, originally from Baltimore, and a graduate of Stephen Decatur High School.

He and said he was a normal kid growing up, although he never knew his mother and was instead raised by his father and two brothers.

In college, Mcgrath transferred from Wor-Wic to the University of South Carolina, but a loan fell through during his second semester there. He left school and enlisted in the U.S. Navy.

He smoked marijuana and drank a little, but didn’t try any hard drugs until he came back from the Navy and found his friends had gotten into Percocet.

“Just one day, randomly, I was over at a guy’s house and he was prescribed them,” he said. “I guess I didn’t really open my eyes enough to see how it was grabbing people and catching people, because even my friends at the time were doing it every day.”

It also grabbed him. Mcgrath found the pills helped numb everything that had been going on inside him.

“I wish I would have focused more on things that were going on inside of me, as far as depression and anxiety and just turmoil constantly,” he said. “My head was constantly just going, going, going. I didn’t know how to fix it, so I did drugs.”

He graduated to heroin a few years later when the supply of prescription opioids became scarce. Mcgrath, who sold pot in college, found himself selling heroin to support his new habit.

“I was just trying not to pay $500 out of my pocket,” he said. “I could sell some and still get high. It was like an avalanche … it was probably the most powerless and vulnerable I’ve ever been.

“Once it gets ahold of you, that’s when the real terror starts to come, because it’s not just about the physical addiction anymore … but now it’s in your head,” Mcgrath continued. “Everything snowballed so fast.”

He got busted and charged with distribution, and eventually went to jail. While there, Mcgrath said, the problem only grew worse.

“It kind of multiplied the problem, because then you put me around other people who are addicts and have different connections, and you’re surrounded by that 24-7,” he said. “Once I got released on parole, I went right back to using.”

Within the space of just a few years, two of his best friends overdosed and died. Before that, his aunt had overdosed and died in 2012 and a cousin suffered a fatal overdose in 2009.

“I was still using at that point [around 2016],” Mcgrath said. Finally, he checked himself into rehab, but by doing so violated parole and was again sent to jail.

“The day before I got released, my other best friend left to go back to work on a tugboat in Philadelphia. Two weeks later, he overdosed on the boat and he died,” Mcgrath said. “It was a point in my life where I was saying, ‘Am I going to go left or right?’”

The drugs, he said, had become a mask for unresolved issues with his family and friends.

“I told myself I was either going to be a 50-year-old junkie, or I’m going to try and take a second chance at life,” Mcgrath said. “And it was the first time in my life I felt like I got outside of myself – it wasn’t all about me anymore. I could see the pain in my father’s eyes and my brothers’ eyes.

“I couldn’t do it by myself,” he continued. “And [recovery has] been the greatest thing that’s happened to me in my life, because now, in return, I can help other people that were in that position.”

He got into the drug court program, which he’s now nearly finished, and volunteered to help in several other local groups, including the Worcester County Warriors, that address addiction, depression and anxiety.

“Anything where I can get some personal time, because that’s what I needed,” Mcgrath said. “I needed somebody to get through to me, to pay attention [and to say] ‘I’ve been through it.’ You can have a piece of paper that says, ‘I can help you,’ but you have no idea what I’m talking about, because it’s hell.”

Mcgrath said trying to help someone recover from an addiction is a balancing act. Based on his experience, too much pressure can push someone away, while not enough can make a person feel isolated.

“It’s really individual,” he said. “Really, it’s up to you as far as, ‘Am I tired of this life 100 percent?’ And it can’t be 99, because at 99 percent you’re going to use again. It has to be 100 percent and you have to stay committed.

“You can’t ever stop working, even if it feels like it’s getting better and you’ve been clean for a while … you still have to work every day to replant the different seeds in your head,” Mcgrath continued. “And it’s impossible to do it on your own.”

Economic impact

Dr. Memo Diriker, director of the Business Economic and Community Outreach Network of the Franklin P. Perdue School of Business at Salisbury University claims, the negative financial impact of heroin and opioids will exceed the positive impact of the billion-dollar poultry industry.

“We did a study on the economic cost of substance abuse in our nine [Eastern Shore] counties,” he said, adding that incarceration, treatments and the prices for Naloxone are on the rise. “Separately, we did a study of the economic value of all resource-based industries in all of Maryland’s counties. From that, we looked at the positive economic impact of poultry within those resource-based industries.”

The negative dollar-amounts in dealing with the opioid crisis were alarmingly close to the positive impact of poultry, Diriker concluded.

 “Given that the impact of opioids continues to grow at a very rapid clip, we believe that within in a few years the negative impact will be a higher number than the positive number for the poultry.

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