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Sat. Jul 13th, 2024

Baltimore’s Opioid Overdose Crisis: Hearing Abruptly Cancelled

By meerna Jul11,2024
Baltimore’s Opioid Overdose Crisis: Hearing Abruptly Cancelled

A hearing into Baltimore’s opioid overdose crisis was abruptly canceled Wednesday morning as a dispute between Mayor Brandon Scott and the City Council member who called the meeting spilled into the public eye.

The hearing was to be the first of four scheduled in response to an investigation by The Banner and The New York Times that revealed the city was suffering from the worst drug crisis ever seen in a major American city, with top officials expected to discuss overdose statistics and potential solutions.

But against the wishes of Councilman Mark Conway, chairman of the Public Safety and Government Operations Committee, senior city hall officials put an end to the hearing.

“I never consented to the cancellation of today’s hearing. It was against my express will,” Conway said in a statement Wednesday.

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Since the Times/Banner investigation was published, the Scott administration has avoided open discussions about the city’s opioid crisis, citing ongoing litigation with pharmaceutical manufacturers. Conway said in an interview Wednesday that in the lead-up to Wednesday’s hearing, he had sought private briefings with public health and safety agencies, including the fire, police and health departments, but he said the Scott administration had declined his requests to speak with relevant officials.

That has left the council in a “waiting state” as the city looks for ways to respond to the opioid crisis, Conway said. And as the clock ticks down to the end of the litigation with pharmaceutical manufacturers, “hundreds of people are going to die.”

Scott’s administration responded to Conway early Wednesday afternoon, calling his statement “categorically false” and “completely inaccurate.” The mayor’s office stood by its decision to cancel the hearing, saying it intends to “avoid doing anything” that could jeopardize its lawsuits against opioid manufacturers.

Scott’s office also denied Conway’s claims that his requests for private briefings were denied. Conway was offered those private briefings instead of a public hearing, “which could only jeopardize” the city’s more than six-year lawsuit, the mayor’s office said.

“It is clear that the councilman cares more about his personal profile than what is best for the people of Baltimore,” the mayor’s office said. “Our administration is handling this matter with due diligence and care, and we have made our position public and direct to the councilman on numerous occasions.”

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Conway said in an interview that he was only offered a private meeting with the city attorney, which was insufficient considering he was seeking to meet with experts on the drug epidemic, not the law.

An investigation by The Banner and The Times found that Baltimore’s overdose death rate from 2018 to 2022 was nearly twice that of the next-highest major city, and that many of the deaths were largely caused by the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl. At the same time, local leaders have focused their attention on other crises, like gun violence and the COVID-19 pandemic, and have allowed some previous overdose-control efforts to stall. Scott’s office has been critical of the reporting, saying The Times and The Banner’s reporting on the city’s response amounted to “mistakenly blaming the victim.”

Earlier Wednesday, the Scott administration held a news conference detailing how the city will use the $45 million it agreed to pay pharmaceutical company Allergan, the first win in the city’s ongoing lawsuit over the opioid epidemic.

Despite the hearing being canceled, protesters gathered outside City Hall on Wednesday afternoon, chanting “end overdoses now” and “not one more.”

Owen O’Keefe, policy manager for the Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition, said he was looking forward to the opportunity to publicly discuss overdose deaths and share perspectives from community members.

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“It’s frustrating how they’re handling it,” O’Keefe said.

Internal emails reviewed by The Banner show that Conway’s office contacted the city Health Department in mid-June to schedule closed briefings in preparation for Wednesday’s hearing. While the agency initially expressed interest in holding those private discussions, City Attorney Ebony Thompson intervened on June 14 to explain that “due to ongoing litigation,” the administration would not be able to allow those prep sessions.

At that time, Thompson said the administration will prepare a presentation detailing “disclosure information” from the health, police and fire departments. “We will be happy to answer any written questions after that presentation,” she said.

But this week, plans for a hearing fell through.

The city attorney sent an email to Conway and Council Speaker Nick Mosby late Tuesday afternoon, according to emails shared with The Banner by the mayor’s office, asking the council to postpone all opioid hearings until the city’s long-awaited trial, which is set to begin in September, concludes. When Thompson agreed to meet with Conway the following week to discuss the city’s response to the overdose, Conway balked, asking for public health officials to be there as well.

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“If you had a leak in your home, you wouldn’t call an electrician even if instructed to do so by a plumber,” the councillor wrote.

Council members were notified at 8:45 a.m. Wednesday morning that the hearing had been canceled, according to separate correspondence reviewed by The Banner.

Scott spokesman Bryan Doherty explained Wednesday afternoon that the mayor’s office and the Department of Law have been trying for weeks to get Conway to push through the hearing out of concern about its impact on the upcoming trial. While Thompson tried to make the hearing possible by setting up barriers that required council members to only ask written questions, Doherty said Conway “repeatedly moved the goalposts” from requesting written information about the city’s opioid response to requesting agency briefings and then requesting the presence of the city administrator..

Doherty said the administration would welcome any hearings the council wanted to hold, as long as they were held after the court proceedings concluded.

In a statement, Mosby said Wednesday’s hearing was canceled “at the request of city attorneys” but will be rescheduled for a later date. The Scott administration has committed to including City Council members on future work groups and task forces aimed at addressing the city’s opioid crisis, Mosby said.

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Conway, however, said his purpose in calling the hearing was to better understand the city’s opioid problems, not to get into the details of sensitive litigation.

The city has talked extensively about other issues related to open lawsuits, such as ghost guns, the councilman noted. In February, the city reached a settlement with a leading manufacturer of ghost gun kits and is scheduled to go to trial against a Hanover gun shop in October. There was no secrecy or blackout on the subject, Conway said.

“Just because the city council hearing was canceled doesn’t mean the overdose was canceled. That’s why we decided to come out and make sure our voices were heard,” Candy Kerr, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition, said outside City Hall around noon Wednesday.

Kerr was with about 20 people from the BRIDGES Coalition, a group that advocates for supervised drug consumption sites, a strategy that has prevented overdose deaths in other countries and in New York but has not been approved in Maryland. She said Scott was an ally in their efforts to promote such sites.

Among the demonstrators was Val Kuehne, who used to take pills and heroin and went through treatment for drug addiction about a decade ago. She said she was disappointed the city would not speak publicly about the overdoses.

“It just seems like another example of a population that people don’t really care about,” Kuehne said, adding: “Unfortunately, I’m not surprised, but at the same time, I feel really angry.”

Councilwoman Danielle McCray, chairwoman of the Health, Environment and Technology Committee, has scheduled three other hearings on overdoses. Doherty, the mayor’s spokesman, said the hearings were postponed at this point until the city’s lawsuit against opioid manufacturers is resolved.

However, Conway expressed uncertainty Wednesday about whether the hearing would take place at all.

“The health and lives of the people of Baltimore should come before politics,” the councilman said in his first statement, “and I regret that did not happen today.”

By meerna

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