Maryland saw a record number of fatal drug overdoses — including deadly ones related to fentanyl and opioids — last year.

There were a record 2,773 unintentional fatal overdoses recorded in Maryland in 2020, according to new data released Tuesday.

That is up 16.6% from 2019 when there were 2,379 fatal overdoses statewide.

Opioids — including the very dangerous fentanyl — were involved in 90% of Maryland’s fatal overdoses statewide. The record overdose levels — including a 38% jump in opioid deaths on Eastern Shore — stem from some of the social isolations, job losses and multitude of other stresses of the coronavirus pandemic and all those government restrictions and economic shutdowns.

The deaths are also part of the ongoing mental and behavioral health crisis stemming from the pandemic.

There is no question the pandemic has been problematic for some of our friends and neighbors with past substance and mental health challenges. Yet, it is still an uphill climb to get proper resources and attention paid to these problems. Our discussions about addiction and overdoses are still too stigmatized and judgmental.

The COVID debate is still too often focused on fights over masks, economic shutdowns, former President Donald Trump and Dr. Anthony Fauci. We have seen an overflow of political bickering, finger wagging and virtue signaling throughout the pandemic.

What we need to see are some serious renewed and new efforts related to addiction, mental health and curtailing the distribution and use of fentanyl. We need real and compassionate conversations — as hard as that might be in our current political and social media climate.

Fentanyl can be as much as 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Much of it is made in China and smuggled into the U.S. — including through Mexico. More of it is coming into the U.S. during the current border crisis, according to federal authorities.

We should have spent as much time, money and energy focusing on mental health and some of the root causes of drug abuse and addiction as we have enforcing old marijuana laws and the very bipartisan “War on Drugs” that has ravaged lives and communities.

The record overdose numbers need to be a wake up call and a call to action.

We need to continue to look at reforming our drug laws and sentences — including a common sense legalization of marijuana for recreational use here in Maryland.

We need to start treating mental health and addiction as public health and community priorities. Otherwise, we run the risk of even more deadly overdoses and ruined lives and families.

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