Maryland and Maine Join Multistate Task Force to Combat Heroin

by | February 17, 2015

By Jean Marbella

Calling heroin a crisis that crosses state boundaries, Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh said Thursday that his office will join counterparts in the Northeast to share information and jointly prosecute drug traffickers.

"We will have a 700-mile-long partnership," Frosh said, announcing the Bangor-to-Baltimore collaboration. "That's very important because the folks who are trading in this drug have to be tracked down.

"We'll be able to track them down whether they're moving by car up and down I-95 or by boat or by plane," he said.

In the latest initiative to control an alarming rise in heroin deaths in recent years, Maryland and Maine joined Thursday an existing task force composed of Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.

Public health and law enforcement officials in Maryland and elsewhere have been struggling to deal with the rise in overdoses, something they attribute to heroin being much purer and much cheaper than in the past.

Heroin deaths in Maryland have jumped every year since 2011 -- to 464 in 2013. And there is no indication that the death rate is slowing: From January to September of last year, 428 people died of heroin overdoses, according to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Gov. Larry Hogan has promised to declare a "state of emergency" after his predecessor, Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, made no progress toward achieving his goal, set in June, to reduce overdose deaths by 20 percent by the end of 2015. Heroin deaths account for about half of overdose deaths.

Hogan, a Republican, has yet to say what he plans to do about the heroin problem. On Thursday, he said he plans to issue an executive order next week, but declined to specify what it would say. He also plans to hold a summit meeting and create a task force of his own.

"We're the ones that have been talking about this for the past year," Hogan told reporters after an appearance in Greenbelt. "It's great that the attorney general wants to get together with other attorneys general and talk about this. That's what we'll do with other governors.

"This is not just a Maryland problem," Hogan said. "It's a problem all around the country, and we ought to be getting all the help and all the info we can from as many places as we can."

Frosh and Maryland Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah said law enforcement agencies across the Northeast will establish protocols to regularly share intelligence on dealers, stash houses and trafficking routes, something that happens now on a more ad hoc basis.

"If we learn about a new product of a certain purity, of a new pipeline, of a particular source who is lacing heroin with fentanyl, which is presenting a public health threat, that's information that the task force intends to transmit and share up and down the Eastern seaboard," said Vignarajah, a former federal prosecutor who previously led the major investigations unit in the Baltimore City state's attorney's office.

"Their networks don't stop at the borders," he said. "They don't stop at the Delaware bridge and neither should ours."

While declining to offer details about specific cases, Vignarajah said police and prosecutors sometimes learn via a wiretap or during a search of a link to another state.

"At that point, what we have to do is pick up the phone and try to track down a prosecutor or a police officer in that particular jurisdiction to get some assistance," he said. "Sometimes that works great. Sometimes it doesn't.

"You're getting an intercept on a wire at 10 p.m. or 2 a.m. and all of a sudden you need to let someone know in New York City that there's a trafficker heading up I-95," he said.

With new government leaders taking over this year after the November elections, a number have announced that combating heroin will be a priority. Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, for example, said in his State of the County address last month that he would add more education and treatment programs and continue supporting law enforcement efforts.

Educators there have grown concerned about a state survey that showed a rise in the number of ninth-graders who have tried heroin and are incorporating drug abuse information into their health education programs.

Increasingly, police and other personnel who come into contact with drug users are being trained and equipped with naloxone, a drug that will reverse a heroin overdose. To date, nearly 5,000 people, including more than 2,300 law enforcement officers, have been trained to use the drug, according to the state health department.

Several law enforcement officials in Maryland said they welcome any new focus and assistance with the heroin crisis.

"The only people that respect the lines on the map are the police," said Anne Arundel County Police Chief Timothy J. Altomare. "We all know folks in other jurisdictions. But anything that formalizes that relationship is a good thing."

Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh declared a public health emergency last month in response to the heroin crisis.

Altomare, who served a tour in the Police Department's narcotics unit, said the increased attention on heroin has brought schools, health departments, mental health facilities and other agencies together to combat the problem.

"The silos have been exited," Altomare said, "and we're all meeting at the center of the farm and talking."

Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby said in a statement that she applauded Frosh's initiative.

"Information sharing is critical to the work we do and combating this problem. We regularly work with our federal partners on these cases, and I have also created a Criminal Strategies Unit that will be focusing on breaking down these silos to improve information sharing in all cases," she said.

Other law enforcement officials were cautiously optimistic. In Caroline County, State's Attorney Jonathan G. Newell said the multistate task force is "clearly not a bad idea, but I'm not sure what extra doors it will open up."

"Sometimes you have to worry about having too many cooks in the kitchen, but I can't imagine that it will have a negative effect," he said.

The focus on prosecuting drug crimes represents a new direction for the Maryland attorney general's office, which Frosh took over this year.

"We have a crisis in our state," Frosh said Thursday. "It's a crisis fueled by heroin.

"We lose more than a person a day in our state to heroin-related death, and the public safety crisis follows in its wake," he said. "It brings with it violence, gangs and guns. The kinds of crime we experience as a result range from petty theft to murder."

Baltimore Sun reporters Erin Cox and Bryna Zumer contributed to this article.

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