- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 21, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Reading the tea leaves of the 2018 gubernatorial in Maryland would be a foolish undertaking at this juncture.

The crystal ball is fairly clear about one thing, though: The opioid epidemic is at the crossroads with public education.

Maryland teachers are bumping against a July 1 deadline to determine how to “educate” young people and college students about the dangers of opioids. At the same time, the opioid crisis is hitting some regions harder than others.

That dynamic means that Democratic contenders like former NAACP chief Ben Jealous, businessman Alec Ross and Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker III, who announced his run for governor Wednesday, must reimagine how to push for votes.



All Marylanders don’t speak the same language, if you will.

Take Western Maryland, a region south of the Mason-Dixon Line among the Appalachian Mountains and a very respectable shade of red. Its counties include Allegany, Frederick, Garrett and Washington, and its voters live in largely rural communities — the opposite of traditionally blue, urban pockets such as Baltimore City and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

Western Maryland helped put Republican Larry Hogan in the governor’s seat in 2014.

These days, the opioid epidemic has plunked itself into the rural life of Western Maryland, and Mr. Hogan, state lawmakers and law enforcers are having a terrible time trying to get it to budge.

Mr. Hogan declared a state of emergency, and the General Assembly passed a passel of laws to wrestle the public health demon.

The approach is multipronged, targeting prevention on the front end, treatment for abusers and tougher enforcement.

Those statewide efforts are certainly appropriate, considering:

There were 918 heroin-related deaths through the first nine months of 2016 — up 23 percent in all of 2015 and up nearly 60 percent in 2014.

In addition to battling heroin, Maryland is fighting a sudden rise in the use of synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and carfentanil, which experts say can be more than 1,000 times stronger that morphine. Abusers often mix the synthetics with heroin.

There were 17 fentanyl-related deaths in Maryland in 2007, but 738 during the first nine months of 2016.

The “Heroin Highway” stretches along the Interstate 70 corridor from southwestern Pennsylvania and Western Maryland to Frederick County to Baltimore. Prescription abusers simply hit the road for Baltimore, where they can more readily buy street drugs to get high.

A crisis indeed.

The laws that take effect July 1 include the Start Talking Maryland Act, which requires public schools to offer drug education platforms on opiates and heroin in third through fifth grade, in sixth through eighth grade and again in ninth through 12th grade.

The law also requires that all colleges and universities accept state funding to have a heroin and opioid prevention plan that includes incoming, full-time students. The plan will include campus law enforcement training on naloxone, which is used to prevent fatal overdoses.

Baltimore already is warning that it is running low on naloxone, and it’s a small wonder considering the abusers leaving Western Maryland and elsewhere in the state are cruising into Baltimore for heroin and other illicit drugs.

In fact, of the 2,089 fatal opiate-related deaths in Maryland in 2016, 694 of them were in Baltimore.

Moreover, Baltimore has an estimated 21,000 heroin addicts.

If Messrs. Baker, Jealous and Ross think they can win the 2018 governor’s race by parsing their lips and speaking sparkling blue rhetoric, they and their supporters need to think again.

While Maryland’s urban areas are inclined to be progressive, voters hear and see things differently when the difference between life and death is under discussion.

Drug abusers are dying in Baltimore, but their families could be on the other side of the state or across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

How the 2018 candidates address voters in one region may fall on deaf ears in another.

If they are mum, that speaks volumes, too.

Mr. Baker, for example, in his announcement video, urged for voters to join his campaign for governor. Not once, however, did he mention Maryland’s No. 1 public health crisis: opioid and heroin abuse.

Deborah Simmons can be contacted at [email protected]

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