ELKTON — President Donald Trump appointee Richard Baum, the acting director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, came to Elkton High School on Saturday for National Drug Take Back Day, an event that allows residents here and across the country to safely discard unwanted or expired prescription medications.
It was more than just an appearance by a White House official. Baum, who is commonly known as the nation’s “drug czar,” the title he prefers, led by example during the event — dropping off an old prescription pain medication of his.
“I had some old oxy (Oxycodone) inside my house from a prescription I received a year ago, and I needed to get rid of it,” Baum told the Cecil Whig, explaining that he had forgotten about it until it was brought to his attention. “My wife said, ‘Hey, Mr. Drug Czar ...”
In this way, Baum said he is no different than anyone else when it comes to fighting the battle against opioid addiction.
“We all have busy lives, and we don’t always remember what is in our medicine cabinets. But it’s extremely dangerous,” Baum said, explaining that someone inside the house, including a child or teenager, could accidentally or intentionally take the drug or that burglars could steal the prescription painkillers and use them or sell them on the streets.
Baum then emphasized that “four out of five” people who are addicted to heroin started by using prescription pain medication.
In addition to the EHS location, there were eight other drop-off sites in Cecil County on Saturday during the National Drug Take Back Day, which is a twice-annual event. In April, the last time the event was held, more than 340 pounds of medications — nearly two-and-a-half times more than the amount collected in 2016 — were collected in Cecil County. As of Sunday, official numbers for Saturday’s event were unavailable.
Baum’s appearance at EHS on Saturday came two days after Trump, who campaigned on a pledge to take on the deadly opioid epidemic, directed the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to declare a limited 90-day public health emergency in response to the crisis.
The president, however, stopped short of declaring a broader national emergency and will not make any additional federal money available to confront a crisis that last year killed more than 64,000 Americans.
Trump’s directive will allow some limited new steps, such as allowing patients in rural parts of the country to access medication for addiction treatment through telemedicine and federal agencies to move around some existing grant money to focus on opioid-addicted patients.
Baum — believed to be the highest ranking White House official to visit Cecil County since President John F. Kennedy presided over a dedication ceremony for the then-new Interstate 95 in November 1963 — applauded the participation he witnessed at the EHS site Saturday, when, in conjunction, the Restore Church held its annual Trunk-or-Treat event and a health fair.
“I’m excited to see the community coming together like this,” Baum told the Cecil Whig.
Baum, who stayed at that EHS location for more than two hours, said community involvement is key in battling the opiod problem through education to prevent people, especially children and teens, from using drugs for the first time. He also emphasized treatment and recovery, as well as, from the law enforcement side, “tightening the supply” of drugs coming into the U.S. Later, during his speech, Baum said “shutting down dark web market places,” where illegal drugs can be purchased, is a major goal.
Baum also stressed the importance of reaching addicts as early as possible, explaining that heroin is so much more potent because it is frequently mixed with synthetic drugs, such as fentanyl, which is 50 times stronger than heroin, and carfentanil, which 10,000 times more powerful than morphine. Or, he added, those synthetic drugs are stamped with logos that make the buyer believe it is heroin. Now, the chance of fatal overdoses is much higher.
“The drug can be more lethal than ever. People using drugs don’t have as much time,” he said.
Baum made a speech from the podium, as did numerous other county, state and federal leaders and officials, including U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, (R-1st); County Executive Alan J. McCarthy; Cecil County Council President Joyce Bowlsbey; Don Hibbert, assistant special DEA agent in charge of the Baltimore District Office; Dennis R. Schrader, secretary of the Maryland Department of Health; Cecil County Circuit Court Judge William W. Davis Jr. and Virgil Boysaw, coordinator of the Cecil County Drug Free Coalition.
“I was proud to be with the president two days ago, when he declared a national health emergency,” Baum said from the podium, looking out at the crowd and commenting, “Days like today are very encouraging. You have a friend and partner in the White House.”
County Council Vice President Dan Schneckenburger said he was encouraged by Baum’s visit and by the length of time he remained at EHS, interacting with people.
“It’s a big deal,” Schneckenburger opined, noting that Baum’s office has a $31 billion budget. “We want him to recognize Cecil County, and he does now.”
Baum later participated in a round-table discussion with various Cecil County leaders and officials who are involved in some way with battling the local opiod problem. Approximately 30 participants were there, including Ken Collins, division director of addiction services in the Cecil County Health Department; Richard Brooks, director of the Cecil County Department of Emergency Management and Cecil County Sheriff Scott Adams.
As of midday Oct. 19, 56 people in Cecil County had died from heroin overdoses this year, while 383 others survived their overdoses, Raymond Lynn, heroin coordinator for the Cecil County Sheriff’s Office, reported earlier this month.
“It’s a tremendous honor to be here,” Baum said, telling the attendees that he works with “career people” and then remarking, “This is not a steppingstone for something else.”
At the outset, each participant introduced himself or herself to Baum and the rest of the group. When it was his turn, Adams told Baum, “This is not a one-time thing. We know each other; we meet all the time.”
Baum lauded the fact that there has been an ongoing, concerted effort to battle the opiod problem in Cecil County.
Discussion participants brought up an array of problems encountered in the opoid battle, including not enough program funding and rehabilitation center beds, a resistance to DEA agents holding educational assemblies in schools, a lack of parent involvement in school programs to educate them on the topic, and the legal difficulties in successfully prosecuting “pill mill” doctors.
At one point, 17-year-old Elkton High School senior Nicole Baldino, who is youth member for the Cecil County Drug Free Community Coalition, joined the discussion while seated off to the side. All of the chairs around the table were occupied.
It captured the attention of Baum, who invited Baldino to squeeze in at the table because he clearly wanted to hear a young person’s perspective. Baum wanted to know her opinion on how drug addictions, in many cases, start at an early age.
“How do kids talk about drugs? How do you think they get started?” Baum quizzed Baldino.
She spoke eloquently and knowledgeably. “It’s not so much peer pressure anymore. It’s about escape,” Baldino said, explaining that bad family lives, personal problems and stress and even mental health issues appear to be some of the reasons.
Even after the round-table discussion concluded, Baum remained in the meeting room, where he spoke to several people, one on one, or in clusters, and posed for photographs.