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Heroin Task Force aims to monitor gateway drugs

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Posted at 7:47 PM, Feb 25, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-25 19:47:46-05

State lawmakers are preparing to vote on policy changes to curb Maryland's heroin problem in this legislative session.

The state's Heroin Task Force presented 33 recommendations to Governor Hogan in its final report issued on December 1, 2015. 

The task force is chaired by Lt. Governor Boyd Rutherford.

"We have to stop the pipeline of new users," Rutherford said. "We can address those who are using and try to get them into rehabilitation... but you have to stop the new users from coming in."

The Task Force recommendation includes five state law proposals. Among the most major potential changes, the requirement of physician's to check a patients drug history before prescribing painkillers or other opioids.

"When a person comes in and has an issue and has a question, the doctor goes into the system to see if this same person has been getting opiates someplace else," Rutherford says. "It also gives them the chance to think about how much the person may be being prescribed."

Rutherford says 70 to 80 percent of heroin users start on prescription drugs and Maryland's prescription drug monitoring program is underutilized.

The Task Force is also asking lawmakers to give law enforcement the freedom to track down drug sales that extend outside individual jurisdictions. Rutherford says that operations often survive drug busts, because many police departments and State Attorney's can only focus on one county or city at a time.

Not all of the recommendations aim to prevent future heroin use, but also address improving treatment for current users. Treating addicts "on demand" is a major focus, according to Lt. Gov. Rutherford.

"They reach a point where they say, 'I know I can't do this forever, but I don't want to get sick. I don't want to go into withdraw. I'm ready to go to treatment of some sort, so I need treatment now. If I wait a day or two days, I'm starting to go into withdraw. I'm getting sick. I'm going to get heroin," he said.

Rutherford says the state is closely watching a pilot program run by Baltimore City. The future $3.6 million heroin "Stabilization Center" will provide emergency treatment and addiction support for heroin users immediately, according to city Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen.

"In the emergency room, all we can do is address their life threatening conditions, but we don't have the resources" she said. "It's not the best space to address someone's ongoing addicting and mental health needs."

The Task Force is still looking into ways to copy the "Stabilization Center" template throughout the state.

"We've talked about using some of the rehabilitation centers because they have more locations," said Lt. Gov. Rutherford. "We're still working through that process."

The Governor's Office is asking the legislature for a roughly $5 million bump in drug treatment spending to implement all of the Heroin Task Force recommendations.

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