DAMASCUS—Community members met to learn about the opioid epidemic in Maryland from experts in drug addiction and law enforcement.
Know the Risks Moco, an outreach project within the Montgomery County Collaboration Council, hosted a public forum on April 9, that covered information about opioids, overdose signs and law enforcement initiatives.
“For me, this is important because it was about five years ago that a person in Damascus sounded the alarm on the problem with opiates in this community,” said Dr. Raymond Crowel, who serves as the chief of Behavioral Health and Crisis Services in Montgomery County. “We are all here because we know opiates are killing our family, our community, at a really scary rate.”
In the past 20 years, opioid use has skyrocketed in the United States, according to Dr. Abby Morris, who works as a psychiatrist in private practice in Kensington and serves as medical director of the International Association of Firefighters.
Morris gave an overview of opioids, their history and the medical signs of an overdose.
“Life expectancy in the United States has gone down as a whole because of suicide and drug overdoses,” she said.
There has been was an alarming spike in opioid death rates in recent years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the average rate of death involving synthetic opioids increased by 71 percent from 2013 to 2017.
Morris explained that the opioid epidemic in the United States began in the late 1990s and can be attributed to a bi-product of compassion.
She explained that overprescribing opioids for their painkilling ability by doctors came from a caring place – one that understandably didn’t want to see a patient in pain.
“It was a fundamental lack of understanding about pain and chemical dependency, probably pushed by a pharmaceutical industry that told us it was okay,” Morris said.
Today’s epidemic looks different, depending on the demographic, she explained. For instance, women are slightly more likely to become addicted to opioids because doctors are more likely to overprescribe painkillers to them. The epidemic also disproportionately affects rural communities, she said.
Morris explained that a person’s likelihood to become addicted is determined by a whole host of factors, ranging from genetics to environment to accessibility.
Many of the deaths from drug overdoses today are due to a mixing of Fentanyl and a common drug like cocaine or heroin.
According to Morris, Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that was originally developed to fight pain in cancer patients; it is 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine.
Fentanyl can cause slowed breathing and fainting, which can make death from an overdose more likely.
To treat an opioid overdose, first responders have been using Narcan, which is a brand name for naloxone. The nasal spray comes in two doses, in case one is not enough, and is administered through the nose. There has been strong support to suggest that accessibility to Narcan can save lives. First responders and police officers in Montgomery County often leave Narcan kits with members of the community because they are easy to administer and very effective.
“Narcan may well be responsible for the drop in deaths we’ve seen in Montgomery County,” said Crowel. “There are 16 other counties where deaths are still on the rise.”
Lt. David McBain who serves as the deputy director of Special Investigations, also praised Narcan for its ability to save lives. He estimates that about 300 officers carry Narcan in Montgomery County, and they often hand out kits to the community as well.
McBain has a special role in tracking the sources of opioids in the community. He explained that when first responders have an opioid overdose call, he and his team will ask questions to those involved, with the intent of going after the supplier. Officers don’t intend to prosecute the people who overdosed or those who called for help, McBain said.
“About 25 years ago, all we did was arrest people, and it really flooded the court systems,” McBain added. “We’re not going to arrest our way out of this opioid epidemic.”
He noted that so far in 2019, about 90 percent of the drugs authorities have seized have been mixed with Fentanyl.
“Anything they can mix Fentanyl with they’re doing it,” said McBain.
He explained that Montgomery County also has a pharmaceutical unit that tracks and investigates doctors who are overprescribing opioids to the community.
“We’re making a lot of progress into learning where the drugs are coming from,” McBain said. He also encouraged parents to be vigilant when it comes to opioid use in kids by having conversations and keeping tabs on who their children are associating with.
“I’d be concerned if my kid lived in Montgomery County and they had a whole lot of text exchanges with a phone number that begins with 443, which is a Baltimore area code,” McBain said.
Finally, the forum covered Maryland’s Good Samaritan Law. Assistant State’s Attorney George Simms explained that Maryland is one of 40 states that will not prosecute people assisting in an emergency overdose situation.
Simms described an incident in which a robbery took place in a house where drugs were present. When one of the residents was hurt in gun violence during the robbery, the other people in the house spent time hiding the drugs before calling for help for fear of legal ramifications.
“This law is meant to prevent situations like that,” Simms said.
The Good Samaritan Law is meant to encourage people who observe a medical emergency caused by alcohol or other drugs to call for medical assistance without fear or arrest or prosecution, according to the Maryland Department of Health.
Montgomery County also has many drop-offs for unused medications. The cities of Gaithersburg and Takoma Park and the Village of Chevy Chase all have permanent medication drop-off sites, which remove potentially hazardous drugs from the home and makes medicine cabinets safer.