In 2022, we lost more than 2,400 Marylanders to fatal overdoses. Nearly 700 of those deaths occurred in Baltimore, Anne Arundel, and Prince George’s counties –– the districts we represent and are sworn to protect. These are more than just numbers on a report; they are a reminder that people who use drugs do not have adequate support networks to meet their needs. As public officials, it is our duty to step up and do everything we can to protect our communities.
The risk of a drug overdose is increasingly widespread. Driving these high mortality rates are synthetic opioids, primarily illicitly manufactured fentanyl. From September 2021 to September 2022, fentanyl was a factor in 80 percent of fatal overdoses. We must address this epidemic with humanity and take meaningful action to empower those in our communities who are the hardest hit by the overdose crisis, which are disproportionately Black and brown people.
Our state is already making strides to safeguard Marylanders from harm by expanding access to naloxone, the highly effective overdose-reversal medication, and funding for opioid treatment programs. While this is a step in the right direction, these initiatives will more effectively prevent fatalities if they work in tandem with other harm reduction programs, such as syringe service programs and overdose prevention sites, to maintain consistent support.
That is why we are sponsoring HB 0953/SB 0618, the Overdose and Infectious Disease Prevention Services Program bill, which would allow community-based organizations to provide harm reduction services that support a public health solution to a public health crisis.
Syringe service programs provide sterile syringes to people who use drugs and dispose of the syringes properly, which is proven to reduce the transmission of bloodborne illnesses and increase public safety by removing hypodermic materials from public spaces.
Overdose prevention sites are safe, private spaces where people can use their pre-obtained drugs under supervision with immediate access to life-saving interventions, such as naloxone. The sites can also refer participants to treatment facilities or other resources to offer comprehensive care and support. Studies show that new patients of an overdose prevention site are five times more likely to begin treatment and three times more likely to reduce or stop using drugs.
Notably, there have been zero cases of fatal overdose at any of the approximately 200 prevention sites operating around the world, including at OnPoint NYC –– the first U.S. site, which opened in New York City in November 2021. OnPoint offers holistic care to people who use drugs, providing sterile drug-use supplies and disposal services and safer-drug-use education. It also provides clinical services, including testing for HIV and referral to medication-assisted treatment, on-site therapy and case management, and more, in addition to operating two overdose prevention sites.
These wraparound services support the whole person to increase their quality of life, embodying the organization’s commitment to creating a compassionate, empathetic space. When stigma and criminalization push people who use drugs to the margins of society, OnPoint works to build trust with each participant, treating them with the respect and dignity they deserve. OnPoint’s prevention sites have served more than 2,300 people and reversed more than 700 overdoses. Their results are further evidence that these spaces save lives, reinforcing what we’ve known for years: Overdose prevention sites are still one of the most powerful tools at our disposal in fighting the overdose crisis.
Simply put, if we want to help our communities heal from these tragic losses and prevent future devastation, we must expand harm reduction services across our state. To be clear, these spaces for drug consumption will not provide drugs. But because we know that drug use is already happening, these programs provide a safe space for people to consume pre-obtained substances in close proximity to trained staff rather than in isolation. By providing an outlet and fostering connection and community, we can help bring people who use drugs out of isolation and get them the care we owe them.
We all care deeply about preventing overdose deaths. Together, we can expand services for some of the most vulnerable members of our state and save lives. The time is now.
Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk represents District 21 in the Maryland House of Delegates.
Shelly L. Hettleman represents District 11 in the Maryland Senate.