ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) -- Maryland saw a 33 percent increase in drug overdose deaths in the first quarter of this year compared to the same time last year, state officials said Thursday as they announced a renewed focus on fighting the rise of fentanyl-laced heroin.
A report released by the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene found there were 252 total drug overdose deaths from January to March, and 148 were related to heroin. Gov. Martin O'Malley underscored the urgency of the problem by noting Maryland had only three fentanyl-related deaths in June 2013, while the number climbed to 17 last month. Fentanyl is a powerful narcotic that can kill by inhibiting breathing.
"So while I'd like to stand here and tell you that this is getting better, it's not," O'Malley said. "It's getting worse, which is why we are redoubling our efforts."
The governor said the state is tightening up collaborative efforts with local health departments and using a data-driven approach the state has used before to fight homicides.
Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, the state's health secretary, said Maryland has strong data, because all undetermined deaths in Maryland are examined by the state medical examiner. That provides quick information on the scope of the problem, he said.
State police and local officials have been beefing up law enforcement efforts against drug dealers. Annapolis police announced nine arrests in May relating to a significant drug supplier. Last month, the state police arrested three people on drug kingpin charges from the Eastern Shore town of Denton to dismantle a drug trafficking operation.
Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein said federal law enforcement officials are supporting the effort in Maryland. In addition to prosecuting drug dealers, Rosenstein said prevention also is being emphasized.
"It's on appealing to parents, educators, the people who are in a position to send a message to children to avoid getting involved in drugs," Rosenstein said.
Baltimore city had the highest number of heroin-related overdose deaths between January and March with 48. Baltimore County had the second highest with 20, and Anne Arundel County was third with 12. Frederick County had the fourth highest with 9 deaths.
An annual report by the state health department showed that the number of heroin-related overdose deaths increased by 18 percent last year, from 392 to 464 in 2013.
Last month, O'Malley created a new Overdose Prevention Council to focus on the problem. The health department launched a campaign to help people get treatment and raise awareness of signs of overdose. Maryland also has trained 2,000 people across the state this year to use narcan, an overdose reversal drug.
The state also has seen a rising number of emergency department visits because of heroin. The state had 1,200 emergency department visits related to heroin last year, compared to 871 the year before and 480 in 2012.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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