Officials Look Towards Harm Reduction, Away from Punishment For Heroin Addicts

A shift in the public health strategy to in the fight against the heroin crisis is leading more officials to consider a harm reduction approach that pushes addicts towards treatment and services rather than punishment.

Baltimore City, historically at the forefront of dealing with the impacts of heroin, hopes to open a stabilization center as part of its efforts to reduce the harms of addiction.

As reported in The Baltimore Sun:

And as early as next year, Baltimore’s health commissioner, Dr. Leana Wen, hopes to open a “stabilization” center where addicts can be taken to sober up and get referrals to treatment and other services. The addicts — many of whom now end up in hospital emergency rooms or jail — also would receive food, clothing and a shower.

Desperate to control the steeply rising number of fatal overdoses and weary of what some consider a failed war on drugs, public health officials and lawmakers are increasingly turning to a harm-reduction approach and away from a prosecutorial one. By accommodating rather than punishing addicts, the aim is simply to keep them alive so that they can be steered toward treatment eventually.

As home to an estimated 19,000 users, and with a more entrenched history with heroin than some parts of the country, Baltimore has become a laboratory for dealing with substance abuse.

It was one of the first cities in the country to offer a needle exchange and, a decade later, to provide Narcan through a program called Staying Alive. The programs have been hailed as helping to reduce the spread of HIV and, at least initially, with reducing overdose fatalities.

“People need someplace to go, 24/7, if they are intoxicated,” said Adrienne Breidenstine, vice president of policy and communications for Baltimore Behavioral Health System, a nonprofit working with the city Health Department to develop and run the center. “Now they go to the hospital or jail, and that’s not the most cost-effective or appropriate place for what they are experiencing.”

Annual operating costs are expected to reach $3.2 million. So far, officials have a pledge of $600,000 over three years from the Maryland Health Resources Commission. Officials hope hospitals will help fund the center, because more addicts would be diverted to the center instead of busy emergency rooms.

The article also briefly discusses harm reduction measures proposed or inaction nationally and across the state.

In May, the House of Representatives passed a bill introduced by Rep. John Sarbanes, a Baltimore County Democrat who represents parts of Baltimore, to encourage doctors who prescribe opioids to patients to also provide a second script for naloxone.

The efforts go beyond naloxone. As part of a sweeping criminal justice reform measure, the Maryland General Assembly this year shifted resources from imprisonment and toward treatment for drug offenders.

Del. Peter A. Hammen, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the health committee, helped engineer a sale of $3.6 million in bonds to build the stabilization center in the Brooklyn neighborhood of South Baltimore. Proponents are still seeking contributions from hospitals, foundations and public funding sources to cover the estimated $3.2 million in annual operating costs.

Del. Dan K. Morhaim, a physician and Baltimore County Democrat, would go further — he introduced a bill allowing health departments and other organizations to open medically supervised facilities where addicts could inject drugs in a safe environment. He ultimately withdrew the measure after failing to garner support from colleagues.

For more information read the full article in The Baltimore Sun.

Opioids and the innovative efforts counties are putting forward to counter the crisis will be discussed at the MACo Summer Conference session”Counties Confront Substance Abuse: What’s Now, What’s New, and What’s Next”, from 1:00 pm -2:00 pm, Friday, August 19, 2016 at the Roland Powell Convention Center in Ocean City, Maryland.

Attendees of the MACo Summer Conference will also have the opportunity to attend on-site training to be certified and equipped with naloxone.

Learn more about MACo’s Summer Conference:

Questions? vwhite@mdcounties.org

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