Montgomery County has seen a significant rise in opioid overdoses this year as use of heroin and other drugs continues to spread, officials said this week.
County police report that nonfatal opioid overdoses have increased by 44 percent from the same period last year. Of 122 overdoses, 31 were fatal.
Assistant Police Chief Russ Hamill said at a meeting of the County Council’s Public Safety and Health and Human Services Committee Monday that local law enforcement realized a few years ago that opioid use was a “great public safety issue” in the county and that it has only increased since.
“The police department is, for lack of a better word, all in, for helping people survive this,” he said, “for holding people accountable for the carnage in communities and hopefully we get out on the other side of this way better than other communities even in our own state.”
Montgomery County is not alone in its rise in opioid use. In March, Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency for the opioid crisis in Maryland. Montgomery ranked fifth among counties in the state with the most overdose deaths related to opioids last year.
Despite the increase in overall overdoses from heroin, fentanyl and prescription drugs, the number of fatal overdoses has remained the same from last year—a fact that officials attribute to the increased availability of Narcan, a medication that acts as an emergency treatment for opioid overdoses.
More than 100 county police officers are now trained to carry Narcan, with more scheduled for training this month to bring the total to nearly 200 officers. Narcan also is being stored at all county police stations.
While responders use Narcan to treat individual overdoses, police aim to stem the flow of illegal drugs by treating each overdose death as a homicide investigation, Hamill said. The department works with federal agencies and other law enforcement groups in the state to arrest individuals who supply the drugs.
Heroin remains a problem but has actually decreased as other opioids have become more prominent, such as fentanyl, a narcotic pain medication which Capt. Paul Liquorie, director of the police department’s Special Investigation Division, said presents its own problems.
“What we’re seeing is an increase in the amount of fentanyl which is being used and seized on the street and a drop in heroin which is obviously a very dangerous trend from an addictive standpoint and for the potential for [overdoses] to become fatal cases,” he said at the meeting.
To combat abuse of fentanyl and other prescription drugs, police are seeking to prosecute doctors who overprescribe pain killers. The county also offers a STEER—Stop, Triage, Engage, Educate and Rehabilitate—program for substance abuse treatment.
Council members discussed the need for further meetings to address the problem and suggested the need for more informational tools to teach residents about signs of drug addiction and inform children about the danger of opioids.
“One of the things that I’ve continued to push for is more education amongst our children to be able to understand the perils of drugs and drug addiction,” Councilmember Craig Rice, District 2, said. “The current health class that we’re utilizing to teach our children about the risks of drugs isn’t keeping our kids from experimenting and trying drugs, so we need to do more.”