Talbot County, Maryland takes on opioid crisis
EASTON— Addiction for Bruce Strazza started at 11 years old, with pills, marijuana and alcohol to numb the pain of his home life. His story is one many Americans currently experience with opioids.
Opioids are types of drugs that include; the illegal drug heroin; fentanyl, a synthetic opioid painkiller; and prescription pain relievers that are available legally by prescription that include oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine and morphine. Doctors to treat moderate to severe pain can prescribe prescription opioids, commonly known as known as “painkillers.”
If misused, whether in a larger quantities than prescribed, or taken without a doctor’s prescription, it can lead to addiction. Fentanyl is more powerful than other opioids and is approved for treating severe pain, typically advanced cancer pain; and its distribution has been on the rise in several states.
The opioid industry expanded in the late 1990s, in response to medical pharmaceutical companies reassuring the medical community that patients would not become addicted to prescription opioid pain relievers.
“I knew that I wasn’t the only kid who was doing it,” said Strazza. “At 13, I knew that I drank more than the other kids. So when you have the mentality of a 13 year old, and you have an alcoholic father, who you swore you were never going to be like, you were just like. The weight doubles and you will truly never measure up.”
His life changed on June 16, 1996 when his brother, Mark, was found dead in the basement of an abandoned house in Baltimore City from a heroin overdose, with the needle still in his arm. His brother was 33.
This took a big toll on Strazza, leading him to leave his girlfriend’s home in early 1997, and go to Baltimore where he was homeless and living under a bridge with thoughts of death. He had his first epiphany on February 7, 1997 when he had his head was hanging on the curb and a car was coming at him, a near death experience that led him to want to live and seek help.
The Maryland Department of Health stated that between 2015 and 2016 the number of heroin related deaths increased by 62 percent, from 748 to 1212, and the number of fentanyl-related deaths more than tripled, from 340 to 1119. More than 2,000 deaths have occurred in Maryland in 2016, and 89 percent of them were opioid related.
The National Institute of Drug abuse stated that as of February 2018, Maryland is one of the top five states with the highest rates of opioid-related overdosed deaths. Governor Larry Hogan signed an Executive Order on March 1, 2017, declaring a State of Emergency in response to the heroin, opioid, and fentanyl crisis ravaging communities in Maryland. This declaration activates the Governor’s Emergency Management Authority and enables increased and more rapid coordination between state agencies and local jurisdictions.
“Oddly enough, there was a business card for a 12-step fellowship in my brother’s room when I was a kid and I stole it, and there was an 800 number there and I called it and they told me where I can find a narcotics program and I went and I stayed for a very long time. My life picked up,” said Strazza.
During his recovery, he managed to have three businesses, over $100,000 in the bank and lived comfortably in a large home. However, things went downhill, once again, when during his eighth year in recovery when he started selling Percocet, a narcotic prescribed for his back surgery.
On May 5, 2010 he started drinking again and he went into his bathroom and started smoking cocaine. It led to crystal meth, and even an addiction to Percocet.
“I had a doctor that supplied me with the prescriptions. At first I did not use them,” said Strazzo. “I just went and I had a collections of these pills and they were the same pills that I ended up taking. I wasn’t taking them for pain, I started taking them for a different kind of pain like emotional pain from a lost relationship and they made me feel good.”
On July 10, Strazza planned to commit suicide in the Atlantic Ocean until, according to him, the hand of God led him back to shore.
“God has given me a purpose to help other men that are struggling the same way, that hurt the way I hurt,” said Strazza.
He is now an advocate for a 12-step fellowship and manages The Gratitude House for Men. The Gratitude House is a level II (managed) recovery residence for men.
They are M-SARR and M-CORR certified and can accommodate 10 residents. They are a program of total abstinence based on the 12-steps of recovery in a caring, family atmosphere.
Governor Larry Hogan released a statement regarding to Maryland’s eligibility for a $32.9 million State Opioid Response Grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Gov. Hogan and his staff have seen the opioid crisis ravage and destroy families and communities and are finding solutions to combat the issue.
“Turning the tide of this crisis will take every level of government working together with community organizations and the private sector, and federal engagement and support is essential,” said Governor Hogan. “We thank the federal government for recognizing the additional needs of states that have been hit the hardest by this epidemic, and we look forward to working together to save Marylanders’ lives.”
Governor Hogan also testified before Congress in March 2018 to advocate for increased federal support for states fighting the scourge of opioid addiction. The Hogan administration has committed over $600 million to fighting the crisis, including $40 million in new funding announced earlier this week. Under Governor Hogan, Maryland became the first state in the country to declare a full State of Emergency in response to the crisis on March 1, 2017.
SAMHSA announced recently that it is accepting applications for $930 million in State Opioid Response Grants, which will be distributed to states and territories in support of their ongoing efforts to provide prevention, treatment, and recovery support services.
In the community, public schools are tweaking drug-education lessons and colleges are preparing sessions for incoming students to comply with the Start Talking Maryland Act, which became a law July 1, 2017. The act requires public schools to offer drug education that includes the dangers of heroin and other opioids starting as early as third grade.
It also requires public schools to stock the overdose-reversal drug naloxone, have staff that is trained to use it and to report naloxone uses to the state. In addition, The Start Talking Maryland Act increases school and community based education and awareness efforts to equip Maryland youth with the knowledge, attitudes, skills, and behaviors to lead a drug-free life.
Before It’s Too Late is another aid that is a statewide effort to bring awareness to the rapid escalation of the heroin, opioid, and fentanyl crisis in Maryland–and to mobilize all available resources for effective prevention, treatment and recovery. More information is at www.beforeitstoolate.maryland.gov.
Maryland also worked on providing safe disposal sites that allow the secure disposal of prescription drugs. These sites provide a place for parents, family members or friends to dispose of prescription medicine. Securely disposing your medicine keeps dangerous prescriptions out of the hands of adolescents and others
On June 12, the U.S. House of Representatives passed several bills combating the opioid crisis, including but not limited to: H.R. 5261, the TEACH to Combat Addiction Act; H.R. 5041, the Safe Disposal of Unused Medication Act; and H.R. 4684, the Ensuring Access to Quality Sober Living Act. Congressman Andy Harris, M.D. (MD-01) released the following statement lauding the passage of these bills:
“These bipartisan bills take important steps to reduce unnecessary prescribing of opioids, strengthen education, increase access to treatment, and prevent the importation of opioids like heroin and fentanyl through the international mail system. The passage of these bills is great progress, but there is more work to be done to mitigate the opioid epidemic,” said Congressman Harris.
This year, there have been 23 overdoses, and one death involving a 56-year-old woman who overdosed on fentanyl in Talbot County. There are strides to raise awareness in Talbot County including an opioid overdose awareness sign located on the northeast corner of the Sheriff’s Office property adjacent to Easton Parkway in May.
In 2017, the color purple has become significant in Talbot County with Talbot Goes Purple, a substance abuse awareness program that will engage the community and youth. It is an initiative Talbot County Sheriff’s Office and Tidewater Rotary, in partnership with Talbot County Public Schools and the Mid-Shore Community Foundation.
The project promotes education and awareness, including the creation of purple clubs in high schools, through which students learn they do not need drugs or alcohol to meet life’s challenges. The project also encourages the “new conversation” between teens and parents, one that includes messages that prescription painkillers are not safe to use recreationally.
“Substance abuse is the number one cause of most crime,” said Joe Gamble, Talbot County Sheriff. “Get involved, talk to your kids and grandkids, educate yourself on the latest drug trends. Get help early…early intervention is key. Lock up your meds, or get rid of them, turn them into our drop box. Teach your children about the Good Samaritan Law.”
With the problem taking over the United States and Maryland being one of the top five states hit with the opioid crisis, the solutions are slowly coming in to help the state and Talbot County. Strazza does have cravings, however, his set of coping tools and faith keep him on a higher road.
“I can’t control the thoughts of my mind but I can control the result of that from me wanting to get loaded. I pray and I call people. I hope this story becomes one of hope to everyone,” said Strazza. “Relationships can be mended, and you can be a productive member to your community. It can be achievable.”