Maryland’s growing opioid epidemic has received much more attention than cocaine use has in recent years. However, the opioid epidemic would not have been possible without Maryland’s large existing network of cocaine dealers and traffickers.
Dealers have begun moving their operations into rural and suburban areas previously untouched by the trafficking and selling of large quantities of illegal drugs. Those dealers now sell crack and powder cocaine alongside heroin and opioids. Some opioid users combine cocaine and opioids with increasingly fatal results.
The consequences of Maryland’s drug trafficking expansion are evident. About 464 Marylanders died from cocaine-related causes in 2016, which is more than double the 221 deaths recorded in 2015. Cocaine deaths had been in decline during the late 2000s and early 2010s. However, during the late 2010s, cocaine made a significant comeback, largely due to the opioid epidemic.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the crack cocaine wave inspired fear similar to that of the current opioid epidemic. Along with the rise of crack use in Maryland came an increase in violent crimes and death. Cocaine dealing was a major contributor to Baltimore’s more than 300 homicides each year of the 1990s.
Thousands of Marylanders were arrested for dealing crack and many more for possession. Nearly 40,000 Baltimoreans were arrested on drug charges in 1994 alone. The crack epidemic got so bad that Baltimore’s mayor, Kurt Schmoke, started to advocate for more liberal drug policies, including a public health approach to the crack wave.
Schmoke wanted to reduce harsh jail sentences and increase treatment opportunities for people suffering from addiction. Although those policies weren’t enacted in the 1990s, they have now become Maryland state policy under Governor Larry Hogan as part of his response to the opioid crisis.
The crack epidemic of the 1990s contributed to the current opioid crisis. Several generations of Marylanders, particularly in Baltimore, grew up around drug dealing and drug use. Some children of crack users have become drug users themselves.
It was in the 2010s that drug dealers began expanding their operations into suburban and rural Maryland. Today, law enforcement agencies make cocaine busts in places such as Howard County, Mount Airy, Abingdon, Brooklyn Park, and Zion.
A 2015 DEA bust in Langley Park is an example of several trends in the new suburban drug trade. The Langley Park operation sold other drugs — including heroin — alongside cocaine. According to the agency, “trafficking organizations have expanded their drug trafficking operations to include other drugs, including methamphetamine and heroin, to maximize their profits.”
Cocaine is a dangerous drug on its own, causing dependency and overdoses. The drug proves particularly dangerous when combined with other drugs, such as alcohol or opioids.
The combination of cocaine and an opioid, known as a speedball, combines the psychoactive effects of both drugs. The combination puts the user’s body under additional stress.
In 2016, most Marylanders who died with cocaine in their systems had also ingested an opioid. Of the 464 cocaine-related overdose victims in 2016, 58 percent had heroin in their systems, and 55 percent had used fentanyl, an extremely potent synthetic opioid. Heroin dealers increasingly cut their heroin supply with fentanyl.
The opioid-cocaine link and the spread of cocaine traffickers into new areas have caused cocaine-related deaths to surge in new areas of the state. The 1990s crack epidemic mostly affected the D.C. area and Baltimore. However, the more recent opioid-cocaine combination spread cocaine to other areas of the state. Cocaine-related deaths tripled in the Eastern Shore between 2015 and 2016.
Today, the crack epidemic has mostly passed, but it left a terrible legacy. Thousands of Marylanders lost their lives because they used or sold the drug. Now, thousands more Marylanders are using it alongside increasingly more powerful opioids. Cocaine trafficking, and the drug itself, cast a long shadow in Maryland.