OCEAN CITY – In the hours following Gov. Larry Hogan’s announcement Wednesday – where he declared a state of emergency in response to the growing heroin and opioid epidemic and dedicated $50 million in related funding over the next five years – local, state and federal entities joined together in Ocean City to discuss the addiction epidemic facing Worcester County, followed by a free documentary entitled “Chasing the Dragon: The Life of an Opiate Addict”.
The aptness of the event highlighted the growing public health crisis facing the state and county, Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) Detective Cpl. James Schwartz, vice president of the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators, told attendees.
In 2015, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene reported 1,259 overdose deaths in the state, 86 percent of which derived from opioids, fentanyl and prescription medication.
“These statistics continue to show that they are rising continuously,” Schwartz said. “We just saw an intelligence product come out today for the Eastern Shore and the numbers of overdoses are pretty much on par with last year. We are actually seeing Naloxone administration double, if not triple, from last year.”
The Eastern Shore Information Center (ESIC) – which tracks criminal and other activities across Maryland’s four easternmost counties – reported 385 heroin overdoses and 42 resulting deaths in 2016, according to statistics shared by Captain Kevin Kirstein of the OCPD. In 2017, the ESIC reported 62 overdoses and six resulting fatalities. Naloxone was administered to 80 percent of reported overdoses.
In more specific reports, according to the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office Heroin Coordinator, there were a reported 57 overdoses and 10 resulting fatalities in 2016 in Worcester County. A majority were white, male and in their late 20s. In the current year, the same entity has reported eight overdoses and two resulting fatalities, the most recent of which occurred this week. It’s worth pointing out the data represents reported incidents and there are likely more that go unreported, according to police.
Ocean City Police Chief Ross Buzzuro said many locals look to law enforcement officials to deal with the problem, but added that education, not enforcement, is the solution.
“We can’t arrest our way out of this situation,” Buzzuro said. “It’s not practical and it doesn’t even make sense. We have to take a multi-prong approach to this and that includes treatment and that includes education. Education is why we are all here tonight and it’s key to attempting to understand this and eventually defeat this.”
Joseph Lear, special agent with the FBI in Salisbury, explained that the documentary shown Wednesday was
a collaborative effort between the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration to educate the public on the dangers of opiate addiction.
“The original meaning of ‘chasing the dragon’ has morphed somewhat and has come to be used in modern vernacular as a metaphor representing an addict’s relentless pursuit of his or her first high,” Lear told the crowd. “The dragon, being a mythical creature, represents an objective that can never be achieved because it does not exist. I believe the movie does an excellent job in bringing awareness to the problem, especially when told through the lives of others.”
“Chasing the Dragon” tells the stories of seven young addicts, each living a healthy life until accidents or peer pressure led them to abuse prescription medication and use heroin.
“This component was primarily about education,” State’s Attorney Beau Oglesby told the crowd following the film. “It was designed to inform those, as it was mentioned in the movie, who will be faced with choices, that fork in the road. Do I go left? Do I go right? I hope and pray that this was enough to convince someone, if only one person, that the choice to use or not use opiates is one that will affect their families in ways that they could never, ever imagine. I am certain there is nothing more persuasive than hearing from the mouths of the addicts as we did this evening.”
Preceding and following the event, organizations – Atlantic General Hospital, Worcester County Public Schools, behavioral health groups and the like – were on hand to share information with the audience. The Worcester County Health Department was also present offering training on administering naloxone.
“This crisis has an impact on every neighborhood – on our school systems, on the economy, on health care, on law enforcements, on the judicial process, and on family,” Lear said. “No one is exempt in feeling the repercussion of heroin addiction.”
The free outreach event, hosted by the OCPD, in partnership with the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office and the Worcester County State’s Attorneys’ Office, gathered more than 100 attendees to the Ocean City Performing Arts Center.