Maryland gubernatorial hopeful Ben Jealous recently released a plan to combat opioid abuse in the state, which he labeled “a public health crisis.”
If elected governor next year, the former NAACP president would institute needle exchange programs for each county, estimated at $100,000; create a task force to under a new agency, the Office of Pain Management, Addiction and Recovery; and target doctors who illegally distribute medication in what’s often referred to as “pill mills.”
“We’ve got to meet the people where they are and deal with addiction … where it spreads even in our prisons and jails,” Jealous said in an interview. “Everybody who needs rehabilitation gets it. We need to spend our money better.”
Jealous’s plan, released Nov. 17, is the first policy strategy he has released since announcing his bid to challenge Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in next year’s election. Jealous faces seven other Democratic candidates in the June 26 primary that seek to unseat Hogan.
Another initiative of his policy, which focuses more on treatment instead of incarceration, would be to open 24-hour crisis centers throughout the state that would cost about $4 million each. The state currently has one center in Baltimore, but Jealous said previous legislation had up to 10 and he would seek to incorporate at least that many throughout the state.
“This crisis affects everybody,” he said. “This crisis knows no color. No zip code.”
To pay for some of these programs, Jealous said he would work with Attorney General Brian Frosh to go after pharmaceutical companies and doctors who aided in the opioid epidemic. Money from any legal settlements would go into a dedicated fund to assist public health officials to treat those suffering from illicit drugs such as heroin or prescribed painkillers such as oxycodone and morphine.
According to the state’s health department, more than 1,200 Marylanders died last year from overdoses with heroin in their system, more than double the total from 2014.
Hogan, who was elected that same year, declared a state of emergency this year in the fight against opioids and heroin. Last month, the state announced more than $4 million in grants to all 24 counties and Baltimore City, which received the most at $1.2 million. The statewide funding includes monies for outreach campaigns, recovery services and support initiatives.
Jealous said Hogan should have worked much sooner, including on how Baltimore continues to ration naloxone, a medication used to opioid overdoses.
“It’s outrageous that this governor acted until he sought re-election,” he said.
Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer said that the governor became the first state leader to declare a state of emergency regarding opioids and signed the Justice Reinvestment Act, legislation designed to end the systematic incarceration of those who struggle with addiction.
“There isn’t another governor in the country who has attacked the heroin-opioid crisis more aggressively than Gov. Hogan,” Mayer said in an email. “The heroin-opioid crisis is destroying lives and families every single day. It is not a political football and it should never be treated as one.”