- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 27, 2015

Facing a heroin epidemic, Maryland officials will spend $120,000 to buy license-plate readers to check the tags of cars coming into Ocean City, believing it can help halt some of the drugs flowing to the Eastern Shore, which has been particularly hard-hit.

The money is part of the recommendations this week from an anti-heroin task force headed by Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, but the plate-readers will be used for far more than tracking the drug trade.

“Successfully recognized plates may be matched against databases including wanted persons, protection orders, missing persons, gang members and known or suspected terrorists,” said Erin Montgomery, a spokeswoman for the governor and lieutenant governor.

The task force also earmarked $300,000 for a pilot program in Baltimore to recruit recovered heroin addicts and have them try to help current addicts through the recovery process, including helping them get treatment or housing.

A number of Maryland law enforcement agencies use license plate reader technology, both mobile units mounted in patrol cars and fixed units that monitor major roadways. They are also used around “critical infrastructure,” such as the port of Baltimore, airports, bridges and tunnels, Ms. Montgomery said.

The plate-reader information, which is collected and dumped into a statewide database, and the pilot program are part of $2 million the state budget set aside to begin to get a handle on heroin and other opioids. Deaths related to opioids have more than doubled in Maryland in the last five years, with heroin overdoses leaping nearly 25 percent in one year, to 578 in 2014. And through the first three months of 2015, nearly 200 overdoses were reported, signaling an even bigger spike.

Maryland’s Gov. Larry Hogan assembled the task force to propose solutions shortly after he took office in January. He has a personal connection to the epidemic, often speaking of a cousin who died of a heroin overdose.

The task force called for spending $500,000 to train family members and friends of heroin addicts to be able to administer naloxone, a medication that can treat overdoses. It can only be administered by those with training, however.

Officials also proposed harnessing free labor from college students, asking them to make public service announcement videos warning of the dangers of heroin and other opioids.

Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where the epidemic has overwhelmed resources, is getting special attention.

The task force proposed $800,000 to expand the A.F. Whitsitt Center, a residential treatment facility in Kent County, to 40 beds, up from 26. The center currently has a six-week waiting list of patients.

The money translates to an additional 240 patients a year, Ms. Montgomery said.

The license-plate readers, meanwhile, will be set up on the northern end of Ocean City to catch drivers entering from Delaware.

Ocean City police were unavailable for comment.

In Baltimore, officials hope to begin follow-up treatment with patients after they’ve been discharged from hospitals after an overdose.

Lisa Lowe, executive director of the Heroin Action Coalition, said hospitals currently treat patients and released them without offering addiction support, which she said made as much sense as treating someone who attempted suicide for their wounds, but not their mental condition.

“If somebody goes into the ER after they tried to commit suicide, they’re not let out of the hospital. They’re transferred someplace on an involuntary commitment order to some other place that starts to deal with their depression,” Ms. Lowe, the coalition’s executive director, said.

“But substance use disorder, you have a near-fatal experience and you get released from the ER with no discharge plan before you’re even not high anymore — it’s just that you’re breathing when you’re released from the hospital,” Ms. Lowe said.

This report comes on the heels of a $2.5 million White House initiative to help the Baltimore-Washington area prevent heroin-related deaths, which is part of a larger $13.4 million effort to fund areas of the country with heroin problems.

The task force is responsible for disbursing the $2 million marked for heroin prevention and treatment in the state budget. The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has received the green light as of Tuesday to start sending out most of the money, Ms. Montgomery said.

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