ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Maryland’s historic capital is known for sailing and shopping, a place where people eat seafood at waterside restaurants. It’s not a place that city police considered a destination for people looking to buy heroin — at least, not until recently.
An increase in heroin-related deaths has been described by federal officials as an urgent health crisis around the country, and Maryland is seeing the drug’s scourge in new ways.
“What we didn’t know was the breadth of the problem where people were coming from outside of Annapolis,” Police Chief Michael Pristoop said in a recent interview while discussing the May indictments of nine people involved in selling heroin, including the alleged leaders whose arrests Pristoop believes have put a big dent in local heroin activity.
The indictments represent a larger effort by municipal, county and state law enforcement across Maryland to address a rise in fatal overdoses fueled largely by a spike in heroin. Maryland’s health department also has been working on the problem, which the state’s health secretary describes as an epidemic. Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, the health secretary, said Maryland has seen an 88 percent increase in heroin-related overdose deaths over a two-year period. Heroin is at a decades-low price, and supply is high, Sharfstein said. The drug also is being laced with fentanyl, a powerful narcotic that can kill by inhibiting breathing.
“There’s been an alarming increase in heroin overdoses in the region and the country, including Maryland,” Sharfstein said.
An annual report by the state health department showed that the number of heroin-related overdose deaths increased by 18 percent last year, from 392 in 2012 to 464 in 2013. That increase has contributed to a 7 percent rise in the total number of fatal overdoses from drugs and alcohol in the state, from 799 to 858. Last month, Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley issued an executive order last month to create a new Overdose Prevention Council.
Maryland’s health department has launched a campaign to help people get treatment and make people aware of signs of overdose. Maryland also has trained 2,000 people across the state this year to use narcan, an overdose reversal drug. Sharfstein said every county has a local overdose prevention plan that includes doctors and hospitals, and the health department is working with the correctional system to review its approach to addiction.
Authorities throughout the state also are cracking down on heroin dealers. Last month, the Maryland State Police arrested three people on drug kingpin charges from the Eastern Shore town of Denton to dismantle a drug trafficking operation across the Chesapeake Bay from Baltimore, the state’s largest city with more of a reputation as a likely place to find drug kingpins. That case involved cooperation between authorities in several Maryland jurisdictions, as well as Delaware. Police developed information in the case from a planned heroin purchase in Anne Arundel County.
“It’s affecting all parts of the state, and we want people to be aware of it,” said Greg Shipley, a spokesman for the state police.
While police have long known heroin has been present in Annapolis, Pristoop said a recent review found that about three quarters of its heroin buyers were from out of town. Two years ago, about half came from out of town. The May drug bust in Annapolis resulted after police in neighboring Calvert County notified Annapolis authorities last year that people were driving to Anne Arundel County to buy heroin, and police worked together to make the case.
Pristoop believes the arrests already have had an impact on overdoses. As Maryland’s fourth-largest county, Anne Arundel has the third highest number of heroin overdoses. Since the arrests were announced in May, the city went two weeks without any, Pristoop said.
“So we really believe that the message was resounding,” Pristoop said. “In some ways, we think people got the message. They were discouraged. It’s not a good place to buy drugs. You don’t sell drugs here.”
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