A hearing to examine Baltimore’s opioid overdose crisis was abruptly canceled Wednesday morning as a dispute between Mayor Brandon Scott and the City Council member who’d called the meeting boiled over and became public.

The hearing was to be the first of four planned in response to an investigation from The Banner and The New York Times that revealed the city is suffering from the worst drug crisis ever seen in a major American city. Top officials were expected to discuss overdose statistics and potential solutions.

But against the wishes of Councilman Mark Conway, chair of the Public Safety and Government Operations Committee, top City Hall officials put a stop to the hearing.

“I never agreed to cancel today’s hearing, and its cancellation was done against my express wishes,” Conway said in a statement Wednesday.

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Since publication of the Times/Banner investigation, the Scott administration has avoided open discussions of the city’s opioid crisis, pointing to ongoing litigation with pharmaceutical manufacturers.

Members of the BRIDGES Coalition hold a demonstration in front of City Hall in Baltimore, Wednesday, July 10, 2024. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Conway said in an interview Wednesday that he sought private briefings in the lead-up to Wednesday’s hearing with public health and safety agencies, including the Fire Department, Police Department and the Department of Health, but he said the Scott administration denied his requests to speak with relevant officials.

That has left the council in a “holding pattern” as the city looks for ways to respond to its opioid crisis, Conway said. And while the clock ticks until litigation with the pharmaceutical manufacturers concludes, “hundreds of people are going to die.”

The Scott administration fired back at Conway early Wednesday afternoon, calling his statement “categorically false” and “wildly inaccurate.” The mayor’s office stood by the cancellation of the hearing, saying that it intended to “avoid doing anything” that might endanger its lawsuits against opioids manufacturers.

Scott’s office also denied Conway’s claim that his requests for private briefings were turned down. Conway was offered those private briefings in lieu of a public hearing, “which can only serve to endanger” the city’s litigation of more than six years, the mayor’s office said.

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“It is clear the Councilman cares more about his personal profile than doing what is best for Baltimore’s residents,” the mayor’s office said. “Our administration is handling this case with the diligence and care it deserves and have repeatedly communicated our position publicly and directly to the Councilman.”

Members of the BRIDGES Coalition hold a demonstration in front of City Hall in Baltimore, Wednesday, July 10, 2024. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Conway said in an interview he was only offered a private briefing with the city solicitor, an insufficient outcome when he was seeking to meet with experts on the drug epidemic, not the law.

The investigation by The Banner and The Times revealed Baltimore’s overdose death rate from 2018 to 2022 was nearly double that of any other large city’s, with fatalities driven largely by the potent synthetic opioid fentanyl. During that same time, local leaders focused their attention on other crises, such as gun violence and the COVID-19 pandemic, and allowed some earlier efforts to fight overdoses to stall.

Scott’s office has been critical of the reporting, saying that The Times and The Banner’s reporting on the city’s response amounted to “misguided victim blaming.”

Earlier on Wednesday, the Scott administration held a press conference detailing how the city will spend the $45 million that pharmaceutical company Allergan agreed to pay in the city’s ongoing lawsuit over the opioid epidemic.

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Despite the hearing’s cancelation, demonstrators rallied outside City Hall Wednesday afternoon, chanting “End overdose now” and “Not one more.”

Members of the BRIDGES Coalition hold a demonstration in front of City Hall in Baltimore, Wednesday, July 10, 2024. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Owen O’Keefe, policy manager for Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition, said he had been looking forward to an opportunity to have a public conversation about overdose deaths, and to share perspectives from people in the community.

“It’s frustrating how they’re handling this,” O’Keefe said.

Internal emails reviewed by The Banner show that Conway’s office reached out to the city Health Department in mid-June to schedule closed-door briefings in preparation for Wednesday’s hearing. While the agency initially expressed interest in setting up those private discussions, City Solicitor Ebony Thompson intervened on June 14 to explain that “because of the ongoing litigation” the administration would not be able to allow those preparation sessions.

At the time, Thompson said the administration would prepare a presentation detailing “disclosable information” from the health, police and fire departments. “We will be happy to take any written questions following that presentation,” she said.

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This week, though, plans for the hearing fell through.

The solicitor emailed Conway and Council President Nick Mosby late Tuesday afternoon, according to messages shared with The Banner by the mayor’s office, requesting that the council postpone all of its opioid hearings until the conclusion of the city’s long-awaited trial, slated to begin in September. When Thompson agreed to meet with Conway the following week to discuss the city’s overdose response, Conway pushed back, asking that public health officials be there as well.

“If you had a leak in your home, you wouldn’t call an electrician, even if they were briefed by a plumber,” the councilman wrote.

At 8:45 Wednesday morning, council members were notified that the hearing had been canceled, according to a separate correspondence reviewed by The Banner.

Members of the BRIDGES Coalition hold a demonstration in front of City Hall in Baltimore, Wednesday, July 10, 2024. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Scott spokesman Bryan Doherty clarified Wednesday afternoon that the mayor’s office and Law Department have been trying to get Conway to push the hearing for weeks out of concerns about its implications for the upcoming trial. While Thompson attempted to make the hearing possible by setting up guardrails requiring only written questions from council members, Doherty said Conway has “repeatedly moved the goal posts” from requesting written information on the city’s opioid response, to demanding agency briefings and later demanding attendance by the city administrator.

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Doherty said the administration welcomes as many hearings at the council would like to hold, as long as they come after conclusion of the litigation.

In a statement, Mosby said Wednesday’s hearing was canceled “at the advisement of the City’s attorneys” but will be rescheduled to a later date. The Scott administration has committed to including City Council members in future workgroups and task forces aimed at tackling the city’s opioid crisis, Mosby said.

Conway, though, said the hearing he called was meant to develop a better understanding of the city’s opioid problems, not to get into the weeds of sensitive litigation.

The city has talked extensively about other issues tied to open litigation, like ghost guns, the councilman noted. In February, the city reached a settlement with a leading manufacturer of ghost gun kits and is scheduled to go to trial against a Hanover gun store in October. There has been no secrecy or barring of information around that topic, Conway said. Doherty pushed back on comparisons to other city litigation. Unlike in other cases, he said, the drug manufacturers have alleged the city itself is at fault for its opioid epidemic.

“Just because a City Council hearing is canceled, that doesn’t mean that overdose has been canceled. And so we decided to come out anyway and make sure our voices were heard,” said Candy Kerr, spokesperson for the Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition, outside City Hall around noon Wednesday.

Kerr was with about 20 people from the BRIDGES Coalition, a group that advocates for supervised drug consumption sites, a strategy that has been shown to prevent overdose deaths in other countries and in New York, but has not been approved in Maryland. She said Scott has been an ally in their efforts to promote such sites.

Among the demonstrators was Val Kuehne, who used to use pills and heroin and entered recovery for drug addiction about a decade ago. She said she was disappointed that the city would not be speaking publicly about overdoses.

“It just seems like another example of this is a population that people don’t really care about that much,” Kuehne said, adding, “Sadly I’m not surprised, but it also makes me feel truly enraged.”

Three other hearings on overdoses had been scheduled by Councilwoman Danielle McCray, chair of the Health, Environment and Technology Committee. Doherty, the mayor’s spokesperson, said that at this point those hearings have been postponed until after conclusion of the city’s lawsuit against opioid manufacturers.

Conway, though, expressed uncertainty Wednesday about whether the hearing would ever come to pass.

“The health and lives of Baltimoreans ought to transcend politics,” the councilman said in his initial statement, “and I regret that did not happen today.”