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Report shows heroin continues to be a major public health crisis

The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene released its annual report on drug overdose deaths in the state earlier this week and, tragically, it doesn't appear as if much progress has been made in the fight to combat fatal addiction.

Among the most astounding findings of the report is that there were 1,039 deaths attributed to alcohol and drugs in Maryland in 2014, and that a whopping 56 percent of these deaths were traced to heroin. Indeed, the number of heroin-related fatalities in the state jumped by 25 percent from 2013 and was more than twice the number in 2010.

This public health crisis with heroin is especially acute in Baltimore, where the number of deaths reached 192 in 2014, a 42-person increase from 2013.

While task forces to combat the heroin problem have been formed at both the state and city level, it's worth noting that Baltimore's Health Department is already starting to implement some of the recommendations of its city task force even though they are not officially due to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake until this summer.  

Some of these measures include making naloxone, which can counteract a heroin overdose, more widely to emergency responders and, perhaps more significantly, helping addicts gain entrance to mental health and substance abuse programs.

Sadly, figures from the National Institute of Drug Abuse indicate that a mere 11 percent of people in need of treatment are actually able to secure it.

Some of this, say experts, can be attributed to the longstanding stigma against substance abuse, which can cause addicts to refuse medication like methadone out of fear of being unfairly branded and residents of certain neighborhoods to protest the establishment of treatment centers.

"We have to recognize it's not random people who have addiction -- they're our friends, our family members, our neighbors," said the city health commissioner. "We would never say, 'Get your dialysis across town.'"

It's encouraging to see not only that state and city officials are taking the issue of heroin addiction very seriously, but that the focus going forward remains centered on treatment rather than incarceration.

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