Dorchester deaths part of grim 2016 opioid trend

CAMBRIDGE — The year 2016 may be remembered as the year of lamentable deaths. While many of us viewed the passing of a host of iconic pop stars as tragic, far fewer of us are aware of the epidemic that continues to claim lives in Maryland and across the nation. Dorchester County and the Eastern Shore are part of a grim upward trend in overdose deaths related to opioids like prescription pain killers, heroin and fentanyl.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Dec. 8 that in 2015, opioid deaths surpassed 30,000 in the country for the first time in recent history. According to statistics released Dec. 29 by the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, overdose deaths in the state surged in the first nine months of 2016.

From January to September 2016, DHMH tallied 1,468 unintentional intoxication deaths in Maryland. During the same months in 2015, there were 904 fatalities.

Opioids contributed to many of the overdoses in 2015 and continued to drive the increase in 2016. Since more than one drug can be involved in an overdose, there is an overlap in the numbers. Of the 1,468 deaths in Maryland in the first three quarters of 2016: 918 were related to heroin; 738 were related to fentanyl; and 317 were related to prescription opioids with 163 of prescription cases being used in combination with fentanyl and/or heroin. Deaths in Maryland related to fentanyl in the first nine months of the year surged from 192 in 2015 to 738 in 2016.

In Dorchester County, the number of overall overdose deaths grew from one to six. All six fatalities in the county were related to opioids, with three related to heroin, three related to fentanyl and two related to prescriptions.

The increase in deaths is drastic in Eastern Shore counties from Cecil to Worcester, according to DHMH statistics. Overall overdoses more than doubled from 60 in the first nine months of 2015 to 121 in the same period in 2016. On the Shore, heroin-related deaths jumped from 37 to 61 and prescription-opioid fatalities increased from 16 to 23. Fentanyl overdoses took many Shore lives, with the count increasing from 12 to 70. Fentanyl is a very potent synthetic opioid and is sometimes mixed with heroin to create a potentially deadly concoction.

The biggest spike in overdose deaths on the Shore occurred in Dorchester’s neighbor, Wicomico County. Overall overdose deaths grew from 12 in the first nine months of 2015 to 40 during the same time in 2016. Deaths in Wicomico related to fentanyl surged from one in 2015 to 30 in 2016. Deaths related to heroin in Wicomico increased from nine to 21.

Overdose deaths were on the rise in other neighboring counties as well. In Talbot, overall overdose fatalities increased from three to seven and that number grew from one to seven in Caroline from 2015 to 2016. Of the 2016 deaths, five were related to heroin in Caroline County while six were related to fentanyl in Talbot.

In mid-November, investigators working with the Talbot County Narcotics Task Force made what they believe to be the largest seizure of pure heroin in the county and possibly on the Eastern Shore.

On Nov. 14, the task force served a search and seizure warrant on Anthony Kevon Todd, of Easton, and his 2007 Cadillac Sedan in the Walmart parking lot in Easton. During the search, officers found a small amount of suspected heroin in the car as well as a small amount of heroin near a passenger, John Durgan West of Denton.

Following the search of the car, police searched Mr. Todd’s residence on Fourth Street in Easton. The search revealed evidence of a long-term heroin distribution operation including about two pounds of heroin valued between $140,000 and $150,000, one oxycodone pill, a digital scale, packaging materials, tools used to process heroin, a drug ledger, a number of cell phones and $411.

The heroin consisted of one large pressed brick, 12 approximately 1-ounce baggies of heroin, and several additional smaller baggies of heroin broken down for street-level sales. The Cadillac and a 2002 Honda Accord, along with items of personal property related to the sale of illegal narcotics, were seized pending forfeiture.

Mr. Todd and Mr. Murphy face numerous drug-related charges including possession of a large amount of a controlled dangerous substance, importing controlled dangerous substances into the state, and distribution of a controlled dangerous substance.

Since the seizure came in November, it did not affect the rate of overdoses in the first nine months of 2016. Though the increase in fatalities is staggering, those who die from the disease are only a portion of the victims of substance-use disorder and the scourge of opioids.

Editors note: This is the first part of a series of six stories about opioids, heroin and related issues in Dorchester County. The series will appear in Friday editions of the Dorchester Banner through Feb. 3.

The next story in the series will focus on the legal response to opioids as well as the life-saving efforts in the county related to the use of Narcan. Subsequent stories will highlight people in recovery and support services, both public and private.

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