CUMBERLAND — More than a hundred local advocates, health care professionals, addictions specialists, city officials, community members and individuals now in recovery from substance abuse attended a free forum hosted by Maryland Democratic Congressional candidate David Trone on Sunday to discuss ways to combat the region’s opioid epidemic.
“This kind of community activity and community action is what we need,” Trone said about the event held at the Ali Ghan Shrine Club in Cumberland.
Trone made addressing the nation’s opioid crisis his key campaign subject after losing his 24-year-old nephew to a heroin overdose in 2016.
“I spent over five years working with him,” Trone said about his nephew’s battle with opioid addiction, “through halfway houses, 28-day programs, therapy, addressing mental illness and all the different issues, and we were unsuccessful at the end of the day, even though I thought we were going to be successful.”
Aside from Trone, Sunday’s panelists included Hagerstown City Councilwoman Emily Keller; Meghan Graves, program director at Mountain Manor Recovery Support Systems; Norma Rinehart, a drug and alcohol counselor with Alternative Drug and Alcohol Counseling, Cumberland; Chris Frenier, founder of the F.A.C.T. program (Fostering Alternative Choices in Thinking); David Brooks, founder of Brooks Behavioral Health Services, LLC; and recovering addict Robb Zellner.
One topic discussed by panelists during the event was current barriers to combating the opioid crisis.
Keller, who lost her best friend to a heroin overdose, said the continuous overprescribing of opioids remains a key obstacle in ending the epidemic.
“Just to give you an idea, the average in the United States is 66.5 — so 66.5 prescriptions of opioids per 100 people,” she said. “Washington County’s is 113 and Allegany County’s is 127, so we are both double the national average of opioids being prescribed to our citizens and you wonder why we have a heroin problem.”
“For the record, I’m not throwing all (doctors) under the bus,” Keller said, “but let’s be honest, there are really bad doctors out there that are not being held accountable, that are handing out prescription pills like it’s candy. We have some of them in Hagerstown and I’m sure you guys have some of them in Cumberland.”
According to a report published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, about 75 percent of heroin addicts start with prescription drugs.
Panelists also discussed new strategies to treat those suffering from opioid addiction.
Brooks said addressing the behaviors that can lead to addiction is a necessary strategy for treatment.
“In treatment, we really need to look more at behaviors,” he said, “because the behaviors is what is going to be what is the catalyst to the (substance) use.
“Substance abuse is going to be there, people are going to use something because they want to get outside themselves, they want to escape ... there is a large gamut of reasons, but the problem is it comes back to what the behavior is.
“Because if you can identify what each behavior is, like lying, cheating, procrastinating, all of these types of behaviors all represent things that addicts deal with.”
Following the forum, panelists took questions and addressed concerns from attendees.
Susan Stewart, executive director at The Western Maryland Area Health Education Center in Cumberland, said the true impact of the nation’s opioid epidemic will take years to realize.
“We won’t know, for years down the road, the effects of this on this society,” she said. “It’s bad.”
Trone has released a 12-step action plan to combat the opioid epidemic:
• Fully funding a national response to the crisis.
• Restoring the Drug Enforcement Agency’s ability to crack down on suspicious shipments of painkillers.
• Promoting new guidelines for prescribers.
• Expanding K-12 prevention programs.
• Negotiating lower prices for the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone.
• Making treatment affordable and accessible.
• Relaxing restrictions on buprenorphine-based maintenance drugs.
• Helping local governments with resources such as needle exchange programs and detox centers.
• Focus on small towns and rural areas.
• Reforming the criminal justice system.
• Doubling the National Institutes of Health budget and reforming the criminal justice system.
• Focusing on mental health from an early age.
Follow staff writer Heather Wolford on Twitter @heatherbwolford.