CUMBERLAND — When it comes to the state’s growing heroin epidemic, James Pyles says there are two types of people — those who know lives are being snuffed out every day and others whose lives have remained untouched.
“There are basically two groups — those who are impacted and those who have not been impacted,” said Pyles, director of safety and security of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
“Unless they are touched by the epidemic, they are not going to know,” he said.
The retired Maryland State Police major joined the DHMH earlier this year. His title doesn’t indicate his greatest area of responsibility.
“I spend 80 percent of my time dealing with the statewide heroin epidemic,” Pyles said.
In Allegany County, out of 184 suspected heroin overdoses in a nine-month period ending Aug. 3, 26 were fatal, according to the DHMH.
“What if we had 184 shootings in nine months with 26 homicides?” Pyles said. “What would we as a community be doing?
Statewide, there were 1,259 drug overdose deaths in 2015, compared to 1,041 the previous year.
Of that 2014 total, 518 were deaths from heroin overdoses.
“That year statewide, there were 363 homicides and 462 vehicle fatalities. In other words, more people died from heroin than homicides and vehicle crashes,” Pyles said.
“It’s very fair to say there are hundreds and hundreds of people in Allegany County who are addicted to heroin and prescription opioid painkillers,” he said.
It’s the overdose statistics and conversations with thousands of local citizens that lead him to that belief.
“Addicts basically used one gram of heroin a day at a street cost of $100 per gram,” he said. “It’s my belief that 70 percent of drug use stems from opioid painkillers.”
Pyles said while a local supply of heroin is available, the street cost of the deadly drug is cheaper in Baltimore.
“The supply line is from Mexico to Baltimore and most of the heroin locally comes from Baltimore city. Some addicts will drive from here to Baltimore two or three times a day and purchase enough to feed their addiction,” Pyles said.
Since 2003, Pyles has given hundreds of community presentations about the heroin epidemic.
“Awareness is the key. A lot of people do not know the severity of the problem,” he said.
“Heroin use is a chronic disease. Someone addicted to heroin will battle it all their lives. The goal is lifelong management — often combining treatment, medication and behavioral interventions.”
Pyles said there are 1,445 schools in Maryland where heroin awareness can be immediately promoted.
“We are going to do our best to be in every school, sixth grade and up, to work to increase awareness of the drug problem as it relates to heroin, methamphetamines, crack cocaine and prescription pills.
“If you see something, say something,” said Pyles. “Start talking about it.”