Baltimore Can Serve As 'Model of Recovery' For Cities Hit Hard By Heroin

By Victoria Kim 10/26/16

One major element of Baltimore’s anti-opioid strategy is an expansion of its needle exchange programs.

Baltimore Can Serve As 'Model of Recovery' For Cities Hit Hard By Heroin

America’s heroin capital can serve as a model of recovery for cities like Cincinnati and Akron, some of the hardest hit areas of the opioid crisis—according to a new report by the Cincinnati Enquirer.

This month, the Enquirer published a four-part series titled “Lessons from Baltimore” which explores the city's anti-opioid strategies and compares them with current policies in Ohio’s hardest hit areas as well as neighboring Northern Kentucky.

Reporter Terry DeMio outlines each facet of Baltimore’s comprehensive strategy that includes everything from medication-assisted treatment (MAT) to needle exchange.

Baltimore has had a “strong tradition of innovative approaches” to dealing with the opioid epidemic, according to Dr. Adam Bisaga, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center. The city began offering needle exchange sites in 1994, and has been funding MAT since 2003. 

Currently at the center of the city’s public health response to the heroin and painkiller epidemic is Dr. Leana Wen, who was appointed health commissioner in January of last year. In her in-depth report, DeMio emphasizes the need for a strong figurehead like Wen to tackle Ohio’s own drug problem. As of now, there is no such person to coordinate anti-opioid strategies in Ohio cities.

As health commissioner, Wen declared the opioid problem a public health emergency—in a city where there are an estimated 19,000 people who are addicted to heroin.

“We believe in saving lives, we believe in preventing disease, we fight any stigma that comes our way with science and that’s the work that we do to lead to addiction recovery in our city as well,” Wen told Rare in August.

Expanding naloxone access is another pillar of Baltimore’s strategy. Last year, Wen issued a standing order which allowed her to write a blanket prescription for naloxone to everyone in Baltimore. The city offers free naloxone training to everyone from police officers, inmates, drug court participants, and injection drug users.

Another major element of Baltimore’s strategy is needle exchanges. In places like Ohio and Northern Kentucky, where the CDC says injection drug use is fueling the risk of HIV outbreaks, needle exchange programs can reduce the transmission of HIV and hepatitis C among drug users, and get used syringes off of the street. 

Needle exchanges have been in Baltimore since 1994, but when Wen took office as health commissioner last year, she expanded the programs—and it appears to be working. “The percentage of people with HIV from IV drug use in 2000 was 64 percent,” she told Rare in August. “In 2014, because of needle exchange, it’s now eight percent.”

According to the Enquirer, the city is also planning to establish a “no-wrong-door” center that will serve as a place for substance users to go when they’re in need of help—that is not a jail or a hospital. The center will provide detox and referrals to treatment.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr

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