By: Christine Morabito – March 2014
Because of its proximity to Interstates 495, 95 and 93, the Merrimack Valley has been uniquely impacted by a shocking increase in heroin and prescription drug abuse. The drugs are reportedly entering Massachusetts by way of New York City and the Texas border. Making matters worse, the now inexpensive heroin is being laced with fentanyl, an extremely potent painkiller, causing an alarming number of overdoses.
Instead of leaving the problem to police and other emergency responders, citizens of the Valley are partnering with healthcare professionals, hospital administrators, legislators and recovering addicts and their families, to bring the issue out of the shadows and to find solutions. Hence, the creation of the Merrimack Valley Prevention and Substance Abuse Project by former Methuen City Councilor, Phil Lahey and community psychologist, Jennifer Burns, who hope to raise awareness and remove the stigma for addicts who desperately need help.
The group meets monthly and has the support of Rep. Diana DiZoglio and State Senator Kathleen O’Connor Ives, who are looking at legislative solutions. Last month at Methuen City Hall, project members and others testified in front of the newly formed State Senate Special Committee on Drug Abuse and Treatment Options.
The senate committee is chaired by Jennifer Flanagan, with Senators Linda Dorcena Forry, William Brownsberger, Joan Lovely, John Keenan and Richard Ross, who are touring the state in response to the 47 percent increase in heroin-related overdoses since 1999.
At the Methuen hearing, senators heard from concerned parties with not only intimate knowledge of the issues and challenges, but thoughtful solutions as well. Methuen Police Chief, Joseph Solomon stressed that this is both a heroin problem and a prescription drug problem, because often heroin addiction starts with prescription painkillers. Users switch to heroin due to its low cost and availability. He suggested that parents be as concerned about their medicine cabinets as they are about their liquor cabinets. To that end, Methuen offers a Prescription Drug Turn-In program, removing medicines of potential abuse from area homes.
Solomon presented these sobering statistics: Heroin overdoses in Methuen have increased 105 percent from 2011 to 2013 and arrests and/or summons on heroin charges are up 108 percent. Over the last 6 months, Methuen has had 46 heroin overdoses – more than in all of 2013. Neighboring cities are reporting equally shocking numbers. Lawrence Police Captain, Roy Vasque told me their heroin arrests are up 100 from this time last year.
Chief Solomon is advocating that first responders be trained to administer nasal Narcan, a medication that can reverse an opiate overdose. He also recommended drug education beginning in elementary school with classes for parents as well. Solomon would like to see severe penalties for those convicted of drug trafficking and a change in focus for those addicted – from less punishment to more treatment.
A repeated concern was the severe shortage of long-term treatment programs, which experts feel are vital to the addiction recovery process. While many facilities offer detoxification, (averaging 5 days) the patients often return to toxic environments, making sobriety unlikely. So begins the vicious cycle.
Others testifying were Rep. Linda Dean Campbell, who plans to propose legislation for expanding treatment options. Essex County Sheriff, Frank Cousins spoke of his successful substance abuse programs and asked the committee to consider more financial support going forward.
The committee heard passionate testimony from former State Senator, Jim Jajuga, who blames the opiate crisis on Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin. The high addictability of OxyContin was well-known and warned of from the start, although not disclosed by Purdue. Oxy is both addictive and expensive, making it a favorite among drug dealers. A single 80 milligram pill costs $80. Since few users can afford such a habit, they resort to cheaper opiates to feed their addiction. Jajuga encouraged the senators to discuss this matter with Massachusetts Attorney General, Martha Coakley. There is a precedent for such litigation – in June of 2013, the drug maker was ordered to pay $4 million in damages to a county in eastern Kentucky.
Many voiced the need for an increase in funding. A common theme of the hearing was that we can choose to pay now or we will surely pay later, in terms of incarcerations, multiple detoxes, higher crime rates and deaths by overdose.
The Merrimack Valley Prevention and Substance Abuse Project will meet again at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 29 at Methuen Police Department’s Sanborn Hall, 90 Hampshire Street. The public is welcome and encouraged to attend.