ROCKVILLE — Community members gathered in the Montgomery County Executive Office Building to participate in International Overdose Awareness Day on Aug. 29., which commemorates those who have passed in the ongoing opioid crisis.
This year’s vigil is the fourth annual event that Montgomery County has held to raise awareness about the dangers of opioids.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), when used correctly, opioids can be a helpful way of treating moderate to severe pain, but their addictive qualities can make them a dangerous solution.
“Since the 1990s, when the number of opioids prescribed to patients began to grow, the number of overdoses and deaths from prescription opioids has also increased. Even as the number of opioids prescribed and sold for pain has increased, the amount of pain that Americans report has not similarly changed,” the CDC wrote in their overview of opioids. “From 1999 to 2017, almost 218,000 people died in the United States from overdoses related to prescription opioids. Overdose deaths involving prescription opioids were five times higher in 2017 than in 1999.”
The state of Maryland follows this nationwide trend, according to the Maryland Department of Health Behavioral Health Administration. In fact, in 2018, Maryland saw 1,648 opioid-related deaths from January through September.
Local organizations like the Knight Foundation set up booths inside the Executive Office Building before the presentation and vigil to connect with attendees.
Kirk Knight, who founded the Knight Foundation in 2017 after the passing of his son, manned his booth and participated in the vigil.
He explained that his foundation aims to provide support and create immediate action for individuals struggling with addiction. The Knight Foundation has developed programs such as Recovering the Artist, Race for Recovery 5k and Arise and Flourish.
Each program is designed to tackle different aspects of addiction and recovery. For instance, the Race for Recovery is an annual event that promotes awareness, breaks down stigmas and supports those currently fighting against addiction.
“With these drugs as potent as they are today, one or two bad choices can be devastating, and I often say to people as my tag line that I wouldn’t say that addiction is a death sentence, but it definitely is a life sentence,” said Knight.
The Knight Foundation also provides presentations for local schools about drug use. He explained that in each presentation, students learn about addiction and hear from a speaker who is in recovery as well.
Local elected officials like Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich and Rockville Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton spoke during the vigil, which filled the Executive Office Building’s cafeteria space.
During his remarks, Elrich highlighted county programs meant to help reduce the instances of overdose deaths in the community. These include Montgomery County Overdose Response Program, which provides training in overdose response.
“This is a national tragedy that has seen a slow national response,” Elrich said. He also noted that the county is deeply committed to preventing overdose deaths and will continue to work on reducing their prevalence.
Newton shared a personal story about how opioids have had an effect in her own family. She also spoke about the progress communities are making in holding drug companies like Johnson & Johnson accountable.
“This is a reckoning whose time has come,” she said. “Opioid addiction knows no boundaries; it matters not if you have a PhD or a GED, (are) a high school athlete or an Olympic superstar. Those little smiley faces on (doctor’s pain charts) were a sneaky way to build a clientele for opioid manufacturers and build an economy that is killing our future.”
She noted that as a way to combat opioid overdose, Rockville police officers are all trained to use Narcan to counteract the effects of an overdose.
Narcan, or naloxone nasal spray, is a medication that can temporarily stop or reverse the effects of a heroin or opioid overdose, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The medicine is administered through inhalation and is easily administered by first responders and good samaritans on the street alike.
Newton pointed out in her remarks the irony that the companies that got countless Americans hooked on opioids are the same ones that are manufacturing and charging a high price for Narcan and other overdose drugs.
The evening also included remarks from a founding member of Surviving Our Ultimate Loss (S.O.U.L.), Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Marielsa Bernard, who lost her daughter Kate Reinstein to opioids.
Bernard explained that throughout her career, she has handled thousands of drug cases and found that issues of addiction need to be considered a brain disease rather than one of criminality.
“Over the last several years, I’ve realized that collaboration really is the key when it comes to addressing really any problem but in particular the opiate epidemic,” she said. “Really the only way we can win this war is if we are all in this together; it is a community effort.”
She noted that issues of addiction and mental illness are often treated with less respect than physical illnesses. For instance, when a member of the community is diagnosed with cancer, people often respond with shows of support like bringing food and helping out with childcare and grocery runs. However, issues of addiction are often met with a “pervasive stigma.”
The final speaker of the night was Nicholas Borowski, who is himself living in longterm recovery. He also serves as the director of outreach at the Second Chance Addiction Care in Potomac.
He described his experience dealing with addiction, which began with prescription medications. Then, in adolescence, he began experimenting with heavier drugs.
“I had reached the point of no return; people who use like me and do what I did don’t get clean. We suffer, we go to jail, we get out and we overdose and I was completely okay with that,” he said.
By the end of his time using drugs, Borowski explained, he had run into trouble with the law, was living in an unsafe and unhealthy home and getting by only one prescription at a time.
Borowski said that county drug court ended up being what ultimately put him on the road to recovery.
“I chose drug court not because I had some Kumbaya moment. I chose drug court because I had nothing better to do,” he said.
He found that as he worked at it and good things began to happen in his life, his desire to use drugs started to dissipate as well.
“I didn’t feel like using when good things happened,” he said.
Borowski explained that even with support, the choice to stop using ultimately was up to him.
“I’m the luckiest man I’ve ever met,” he said, “I escaped from a self-prescribed death sentence.”