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The opioid epidemic has made it to Maryland roads. Will $17 million help?

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By Riin Aljas

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — In March, a woman driving on West Street in Annapolis, went suddenly from outbound into the inbound lane and caused a head-on collision. According to a statement from Annapolis Police Department, she had overdosed on opioids – already the third time that month when Annapolis police registered a collision that is related to the drug epidemic.

“Although it happens time to time, it’s very unusual to have three overdose-related accidents in one month. At least in Annapolis,” said Police Department’s spokeswoman Sgt. Amy Miguez.

The Annapolis Police Department, the Montgomery County Police Department nor the Maryland State Police tracks how many people drive under the influence of opioids. Officers do, however, see more people driving with opioid related symptoms, such as lethargy, Miguez explained.

Miguez’s observations are in line with a recent study from Columbia University, where researchers analyzed data from 18,321 nationwide fatal crashes between 1993 to 2016. The results demonstrate that so called “drugged driving” had increased 5 percent and that failure to keep in lane accounted for 55 percent of errors made by drivers who had opioids in their organism.

“Use of prescription opioids more than doubles the risk of fatal two-vehicle crash initiation, regardless of the blood alcohol level,” said Stanford Chihuri, co-author of the study.

Although nationwide data shows rise of opioid use among drivers involved in fatal crashes, it’s not the case for Maryland. A report, based on data from Maryland’s state medical examiner, found no increase in opioid use when looking at fatal crashes from 2006 to 2017.

This surprised even the researchers, because Maryland is one of the states severely affected by the opioid epidemic and opioid related overdoses have risen each year.

One of the report’s authors, Jonathon P. Eshani, assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University, explained the differences with the study design: unlike nationwide studies, the Maryland report included only the drivers who died on the scene, because drivers who were taken to the hospital could have had opioids injected in the emergency room.  

The report also revealed that Maryland’s rural counties have the highest rates of opioid-involved crash fatalities. “Middle-aged white populations are more likely to be using opioids,” said Ehsani.

Not all drugged-driving incidents result in fatal crashes however, so the number of people driving under opioid influence can be higher than accounted in studies focusing on fatalities.

“In one of the overdose cases this month, a woman hit a tree and no other car nor fatal injuries were involved,” Miguez said. According to her, the best way to avoid overdoses on highways is to focus more on treating people with addiction and in recent years Maryland has seen improvements in more centers opened where people can get help.  

Additionally, U.S. senators Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin announced $17 million in federal funding for Maryland to reduce opioid related deaths.

Cardin said the money will give local governments more flexibility to choose what they need to do to help to fight the epidemic.

“Opioid addiction has wreaked havoc in our state and across the country, leaving no community unscathed,” Van Hollen said. “This investment will provide crucial resources to Maryland’s efforts to combat the crisis.”

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