Montgomery County traditionally has ranked low in the number of deaths from drug and alcohol overdoses, but a recent spike in heroin-related deaths has officials alarmed.
Seven overdose deaths have been tied to heroin use in Montgomery County since March, including six since the beginning of June, according to a news release on Wednesday from by the Montgomery County Police Department.
The seven deaths equal the total from 2010-12 combined.
The victims range in age from 19 to 45 and are spread throughout the county, according to the release.
“To have seven in six weeks and seven in three years, that’s a big spike for us,” said Capt. Nancy Demme, director of the police department’s Special Investigations Division.
Because of the increase, police have pooled their resources to try to create a “holistic” approach to solving the problem, she said.
Narcotics and homicide detectives work closely to investigate the deaths, trying to determine where the heroin came from, as well as investigating the death itself.
Demme pointed to increased efforts by the prescription drug industry to cut down on the abuse of their products, which they fear could drive more people toward heroin.
When addicts run into problems getting prescriptions for legal drugs filled, they often turn to heroin because it’s more readily available, Demme said.
But heroin varies widely in quality, rather than the controlled dosages of prescription pills, which can lead to a deadly mistake for some users.
Overdoses don’t cover all of the deaths that come from heroin, said Raymond Crowel, chief of behavioral health and crisis services for Montgomery’s Department of Health and Human Services.
Suicides or deaths in vehicle crashes while using heroin are related to heroin use, but are not part of the overdose statistics, he said.
Wednesday’s announcement came less than a week after Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) met with officials from federal, state and local governments in Elkton to highlight the problem of deaths from drug overdoses in Cecil County and throughout Maryland.
Between 2007 and 2012, Cecil had the second-highest overdose death rate in the state, behind only Baltimore city, according to a release from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The death rate was calculated based on the number of overdose deaths per 100,000 residents, so jurisdictions could be compared fairly.
Montgomery County has the lowest overdose death rate in the state during the same time period, according to the state report.
As part of the state’s efforts to address the problem, both the state and individual counties have come up with overdose prevention plans, said Kathleen Rebbert-Franklin, acting director of the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration, part of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Local jurisdictions will examine what data they haven’t mined, including that provided by treatment centers, emergency rooms, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and emergency medical services.
“How do we want to use all these data sources?” Rebbert-Franklin said.
The local response also will establish commissions to review each overdose death to try to find common denominators to prevent future deaths, she said.
Montgomery always has had a wide array of treatment options, ranging from preventive education to outpatient care, residential detox and aftercare that offers recovering addicts a chance to participate and engage with other people in recovery, Crowel said.
He agreed that prescription drugs often are the first point of access to drugs because they’re more easily available.
At some point, Crowel said, people often shift to heroin because it’s cheaper and users don’t have to go through doctors to get it. But the rise in heroin usage doesn’t mean prescription drugs aren’t still a major issue, Demme said.
“That problem has not gone away,” she said.