ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Gov. Larry Hogan praised local officials in southern Maryland on Wednesday for bringing murder charges against eight alleged drug dealers linked to eight overdose deaths.

Hogan, speaking a news conference in Leonardtown, said he hopes the long-term investigation would serve as a model to prosecutors statewide for fighting a deadly epidemic that resulted in more than 2,000 overdose deaths last year in Maryland.

“Everyone is entitled to due process, and everyone is innocent until proven guilty, but I believe that this is the level of tough prosecution that we need in order to turn the tide in this deadly fight,” Hogan said. “Investing in prevention and treatment can only work if we eliminate the threat posed by drug traffickers all across the state of Maryland.”

Fatal drug overdoses continue to climb at an alarming rate. The state health department last week said that from January through March, there were 550 overdose-related deaths in Maryland, up 37 percent from 401 in last year’s first quarter. Deaths from heroin spiked with fentanyl are rising, driving up the overall spike, the report noted.

Fentanyl is a powerful painkiller, 50 times more potent than street heroin. There were 372 fentanyl-related deaths in the first three months of this year, more than double last year’s 157.

Tim Cameron, sheriff of St. Mary’s County, said he never thought heroin would be the greatest threat to his quiet, rural county, once far removed from big-city drug problems.

“We treated every deadly overdose case as a homicide and as a result of that, State’s Attorney Richard Fritz secured eight separate indictments on individuals for second-degree murder, manslaughter, reckless endangerment and distribution charges,” Cameron said. “The St. Mary’s County grand juries have indicted eight persons for causing the death of eight victims by distribution of illegal drugs, specifically heroin, fentanyl and carfentanil or some combination therein.”

Carfentanil is an opioid used to sedate elephants, and is considered 10,000 times stronger than morphine.