At a time when opioid use and overdoses have reached epidemic proportions, government officials across the area are forming new partnerships with the faith and medical community to address a killer that they say has roamed free in the community for too long.
From the First Baptist Church of Highland Park, where WHUR radio recently held a live town hall, to Saint Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Baltimore, where health officials, police chaplains and street workers talk about coping with a record number of overdoses, dealing with opioids has become a priority across the region.
“This is a major issue that we are dealing with,” said Maryland Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, who took part in the special segment on WHUR-FM (96.3), “Opioids: The Crisis Within,”
The segment, hosted by WHUR’s Harold Fisher, featured local medical officials who talked about how far too many are affected by a killer as close as the bathroom medicine cabinet.
“This is a national issue that is impacting every community in the DMV,” Fisher told The Washington Informer.
Dr. Mark Johnson, chairman of the Department of Community and Family Medicine at Howard University, concurred.
“We have a lot of people coming in the office with drug-seeking behavior,” Johnson said. “They come in and say I have pain and the only thing that will help me is Percocet. We hear that over and over again and that makes us suspicious.”
There have been 800 opioid deaths over the past four years in the region, with thousands of other overdoses, national and local statistics show. In Baltimore, more than 700 have died of drug overdoses during that period.
Dr. Erica Martin Richards, chair and medical director of the Department of Psychiatry at Sibley Memorial Hospital, said that the opioid problem is evident of disturbing trend.
“Number 1, we need to understand that drugs on the street have become more lethal,” Richards said, citing marijuana as a popular gateway drug of which users are four times likelier to continue on to more addictive drugs.
WHUR General Manager Sean Plater said that while the special broadcast was important, the dialogue must continue because “this is an epidemic that we need to get in front of.”
But Jeff Canady, a D.C. educator and community activist, said after years of discussions, nothing is changing because too many city officials offer the same solutions and ignore the cries of the regular person because “they don’t have compassion for people.”
In Baltimore, community activists and state officials came together Saturday for a training program for those on the front lines of the opioid crisis.
Longtime D.C. activist William Killebrew brought many in attendance to tears as he recounted the day in 1984 when his father killed his mother and his brother in Capital Heights.
“He put the gun to my head,” Killebrew said during the event at Baltimore’s St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, called “The Path Toward Healing Our City.”
Rev. Kimberly Lagree, who chairs the Faith Outreach Committee for the Baltimore City Health Department’s Office of Youth and Trauma Services, said the goal of the event was to explore new pathways for helping those on the front lines of the opioid crisis.
In 2017, Baltimore City saw 761 drug- and alcohol-related deaths, 692 of which were opioid-related.
The Baltimore City Health Department is working in partnership with the Baltimore Police Department and the Archdiocese of Baltimore and several universities including Morgan State, John Hopkins to strengthen those working to deal with opioids.
After years of working in D.C., Killebrew now works for Baltimore Health Department’s Office of Youth and Trauma Services. He said what made the difference in his life was that people cared.
“After my mother and brother were killed, my brother went to the streets and I went to alcohol substance abuse to begin to cope,” said Kellibrew, adding that his grandmother, school officials and many others got involved in his recovery.
He has since dedicated his life to working with young people in Baltimore and his efforts to change was recognized on a segment of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” years ago.
But today there is a new battle.
“We are in a state of emergency, not only in the city but in our state and through out the country,” Killebrew said. “Here in Baltimore, we are focused on training in lock boxes, access to treatment and working with young people and unintended victims.”