Anne Arundel County Remains Hopeful In Fight Against Heroin
Numbers and statistics can be revealing in many situations, but they don’t always tell the whole story. In the case of Anne Arundel County — where County Executive Steve Schuh recently declared March to be Opioid and Heroin Prevention Awareness Month — the number of reported heroin overdoses so far this year, as compared with the number reported at this time last year, shows a significant increase, and in the wake of a 19-hour period between March 7 and the early morning hours of March 8 when there were 16 overdoses, including three fatalities, heroin seems a more daunting threat than ever.
But does that mean Anne Arundel County is losing its war on drugs? The short answer — no, not at all.
Although the 237 reported heroin overdoses between January 1 and March 15, 2017, exceeds the 147 reported during the same time period in 2016, the number of fatal overdoses remains the same at 23, indicating that a smaller proportion of overdoses are resulting in death. Additionally, the Anne Arundel County Police Department (AACPD) is seeing a downward trend. The current year-to-date numbers are at a 60 percent increase compared with a 100 percent increase about a month ago.
“By no means do we feel these numbers are acceptable,” explained Lieutenant Ryan Frashure, spokesman for AACPD. “We're simply saying that this has been such an epic battle that any victory, no matter how small, is still a victory. We will continue to work tirelessly with our partners in the county to provide education, treatment and prevention to combat this addiction epidemic.”
One explanation for the increased reported overdoses might be an increased awareness of heroin addiction in the county; that is, there might be the same number, but AACPD just knows about them now. “The police department has been tracking heroin overdoses we’ve responded to since 2014, but they’re just the ones that the police department has been made aware of and responded to,” explained Captain Herbert Hasenpusch with AACPD. “Before we had identified this as such an epidemic, someone would call because someone passed out, and the fire department would come and get the person to the hospital. The police department was never involved.”
Hasenpusch also pointed to the Good Samaritan Act as a reason more and more heroin overdoses are being reported. “[The] legislature enacted the Good Samaritan Act a couple of years ago, which gives immunity to people when they call 911 to get help from someone suffering from alcohol intoxication or an opioid overdose,” he explained. “I think there are more people who feel good about calling to get help for their friends instead of thinking they’ll get in trouble.”
Even with the many more heroin overdoses brought to the county’s attention, there are countless other struggles that go unreported, which makes it difficult for Nancy Schrum, director of constituent services for the county executive, to measure the success of these addiction prevention and aid efforts.
“What I think we need to understand, so we can better assess what we’ll look like in six months or a year from now, is how many people are active users who we don’t even know about,” she said. “This is a public health emergency. How do we plan a year from now for treatment purposes if these numbers continue the way they are?”
But Schrum believes that the Not My Child program — a collaboration on the part of county agencies, nonprofit organizations and other community members to provide information and resources to parents — has had a positive effect since it launched in 2015. “If anything, it’s gotten the conversation going,” Schrum said. “As a result, we’re expanding.”
Not My Child has been holding panel discussions for schools, churches, community associations, civic groups and other organizations throughout Anne Arundel County. Although the crowd size varies with each presentation, sometimes drawing only a handful of concerned citizens and other times bringing hundreds, Schrum has witnessed just how heroin addiction is affecting Anne Arundel’s families.
“This crisis is an evil cloud that is falling on families,” she said. “Parents are often the last to know because kids are discrete and savvy at keeping their issues to themselves.”
Some members of the Not My Child panel can give personal insight into the problem because they are going through it themselves. Sandra Smallnicky with the Department of Health has two family members battling opioid addiction. “What I usually tell the community is that there’s no easy part of this at all,” she said. “The drugs are so strong and so easy to get on the street that it becomes a very difficult battle. Getting them into treatment is very difficult.”
Upcoming dates for Not My Child are March 28 at Lindale Middle School, April 18 at Annapolis High School, April 20 at St. Margaret's Church, April 27 at Corkran Middle School and April 30 at St. Andrew's by the Bay. All presentations begin at 7:00pm except April 30, which will be held from 5:30pm to 7:00pm. All community members are welcome at any presentation. “We’ve got to continue to fight this disease as a community,” Smallnicky said.
While Not My Child spreads awareness of heroin addiction to families and helps connect parents to resources they need, the police department continues to fight the crime of dealership. As Hasenpusch emphasized, AACPD has no interest in pursuing criminal punishment for addicts who are otherwise uninvolved with illegal activity. AACPD is after the dealers.
“We have no interest in targeting addicts,” Hasenpusch said. “If they come to us to find out how to get help, we’re going to tell them how to get help.” He explained that sometimes people with addiction are arrested for related crimes — such as theft to support their addiction — but everyone arrested in Anne Arundel County receives a letter from Police Chief Tim Altomare explaining how to get treatment and recover from addiction.
“Unless there’s some other reason or some other information that’s coming to us that they’re a big-time drug dealer, we have no interest in using their contact with us to open an investigation on them using narcotics,” Hasenpusch added.
In an effort to save lives, AACPD carries naloxone, better known by the brand name Narcan, to treat the effects of opioid overdose. “We’ve been carrying that since second quarter of 2014,” Hasenpusch said. “Law enforcement in Anne Arundel County has administered Narcan 47 times this year alone. Last year at this time, it was administered 16 times, and in 2015, it was only administered once.”
He added that citizens can get training for the proper use of naloxone through the Anne Arundel County Department of Health and purchase the medication at their local pharmacy so they will be equipped to save a life if they are ever in a situation where there has been an overdose.
Despite the pressures the county faces and the strain that they put on public resources, those involved with the fight remain hopeful that Anne Arundel will continue to move in the right direction, but it will take a community effort.
“It’s starts at home,” Schrum said. “It’s time to examine what’s important to us.” She pointed out that today’s youth have easy access to information and early independence. “How much freedom should a 12-year-old have?” she said. “There’s a lot the family unit needs to examine in the world we live in today.”
For the police’s part, Frashure emphasized that it will also take effort from those who are directly affected the most — the ones with the addiction. “We need addicts to have the courage to ask for help and take advantage of the resources the county has worked so hard to establish and provide,” he said. “Help is here. They just need to be ready to seek that help.”