Our state is in crisis. Countless families have been torn apart and thousands of lives have been lost due to the opioid epidemic that has taken a devastating toll on our communities. Last year, over 1,200 Marylanders died from overdoses related to heroin, twice the number that died in 2014, while over 1,100 died with fentanyl in their system – more than six times the deaths in 2014.
And the problem is only getting worse. In Baltimore, the life-saving drug, Naloxone, is being rationed due to shortages. Addicts aren’t able to access the care they need in a timely manner and are being placed in prisons instead of rehab. To end this epidemic, Maryland must change its mindset and recognize that we cannot incarcerate our way out of an addiction crisis. Incarceration is the least effective and most expensive way to fix a public health emergency.
As a candidate for governor, I recently announced a comprehensive plan to fight back and stop this public health disaster. You can read my full plan, Enough is Enough, on my website.
First, in the short term, we must do everything we can to save lives and reduce the number of fatal overdoses and ensure that places like Baltimore no longer have to ration life-saving drugs. This starts with expanding the availability of Naloxone. As prices skyrocket, I will use the state’s bargaining power to help jurisdictions acquire as many Naloxone doses as possible at more affordable prices. And I’ll devote an additional $2 million in state funding to stock Naloxone in public spaces, enough for 25,000 more doses.
I will also increase the number of 24/7 crisis centers in the most at-risk areas to ensure that anyone can get help when they need it. We need to create and fund Overdose Outreach Teams to go into our communities to fight back against overdose deaths whenever and wherever they are needed. We will also increase the urgency and quality of data sharing across the state so that public health officials can quickly and accurately respond to the situation on the ground.
Second, we need to begin shifting our focus from more incarceration to more rehab for low-level addicts so that we are finally treating this as a public health crisis instead of a law enforcement concern.
We can do this by ensuring that anyone can get the treatment they need without fear of jail. By expanding public health resources that seek to treat addiction rather than punish it, we can get to the root of the problem instead of funneling millions of dollars into punitive measures.
We’re going to build on the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) Program currently being tried in Baltimore City. Initiatives like this one give people arrested for possession of small amounts of drugs and who have no felony convictions the option of participating in recovery programs instead of being criminally charged. They’ve been hugely successful in reducing recidivism rates and helping non-violent, low-level offenders get on the road to recovery which is a massive boon to public safety.
For those already in correctional facilities, we need to improve and expand treatment options available to them. When we toss individuals suffering from addiction into jail and spit them back out onto the street, we let the underlying issue of addiction go untreated and unaddressed. Too often these individuals end up back in the system or die from overdose after being released. The cost of letting them slip through the cracks adds to our public health crisis and undermines public safety.
Thirdly, we will hold those who played a role in creating and perpetuating this epidemic accountable.
For decades manufacturers and distributers pushed increasing amounts of prescription painkillers. Hundreds of millions of doses for millions of Americans. In total, 97.5 million Americans took painkillers in 2015, while 12.5 million misused them. And the pharmaceutical companies have walked away with exorbitant profits as a result.
All across the country, states, local jurisdictions, and even the Department of Justice have filed lawsuits against the companies responsible. I want Maryland to join these efforts on the state level. Currently, Attorney General Brian Frosh has taken productive steps, joining a coalition of 41 states investigating the role major drug manufacturers played in creating the crisis. I will continue to work with the Attorney General to make sure that Maryland is on the forefront of these legal battles and the settlements the state receives will go towards ending this crisis.
The manufacturers aren’t the only ones at fault, however. My plan also takes steps towards cracking down on pill mills and doctors abusing their prescriptive powers. We need policy change that will root out non-medically necessary opioid prescriptions and encourage the use of alternative, non-addictive pain treatment options within our public health system.
Finally, we need to lay the groundwork for long-term solutions that will ultimately end this epidemic and prevent new ones from occurring. We’ll create a new state Office of Pain Management, Addiction, and Recovery, which will seek to function as a centralized point overseeing treatment and recovery efforts and place our state on a healthier and more sustainable approach to pain management.
Putting an end to the opioid crisis is not an easy task. But it’s one that families all across Maryland suffering from the heartbreaking consequences of this crisis have been calling out for our leaders to take on.
I promise that I will always remain laser focused on supporting the victims suffering from opioid dependency, the families who often bear the brunt of addiction, and the heroic public health professionals and first responders working hard every day against long odds to save lives and turn the tide of this epidemic.
Now let’s get to work.
Ben Jealous is the former president of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, former CEO and president of the NAACP and is currently running for governor of Maryland.