Heroin overdose deaths have climbed while prescription painkiller overdose deaths have dropped in Maryland, according to a new report by the state's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
The state posted a 41 percent increase in heroin overdose deaths, to 205 in the first seven months of the year from 145 over the same period last year, according to the report. Overdose deaths from prescription drugs like oxycodone and hydrocodone dropped from 208 to 177 over the same time period.
The data seem to support a trend in which experts say prescription painkiller abusers move on to heroin due to the latter's inexpensive price and potent high.
"The rise in overdoses from heroin is a new and concerning trend," said Health and Mental Hygiene Secretary Joshua Sharfstein. "By addressing this issue, we can continue the progress Maryland has made against drug addiction."
The biggest increases came from younger age groups, with a 53 percent increase among residents ages 15 to 24 and a 59 percent increase among those ages 35 to 44, according to the report.
"We're seeing younger people having problems with addiction," said Beth Kane Davidson, director of the Addiction Treatment Center at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda. "I hear so many parents say, 'Where did I go wrong? What did I do?' "
The report outlines a few responses Maryland will take to address the heroin trend. These include outreach to health providers to help better recognize potential heroin users, support for "innovative local efforts" to curb overdoses and the development of the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program to refer abusers to treatment facilities.
Wilson Compton, director of the Division of Epidemiology, Services and Prevention Research at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said the move from prescription drugs to heroin seems to be occurring in suburbs across the country.
"It's rare that somebody starts out with heroin," Compton said. "There are warning signs."
The trend means more work for people like Mike Gimbel, a former heroin addict who has since dedicated himself to substance abuse treatment and education in Maryland. Gimbel noted that, even before overdoses happen, heroin addiction takes a massive toll on addicts' friends and family.
"The user ends up becoming a thief, stealing, robbing from their own family, doing things that they would never do before," he said. "It impacts every single person in that family, as it did mine."