The tragic death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman because of an apparent heroin overdose may at last draw the nation’s attention to a serious societal problem, but Massachusetts didn’t need the warning. Heroin is ruining lives from one end of the state to the other, and the drug’s impact may be worsening.
It’s a buyer’s market for heroin, according to law enforcement authorities, as the price is down and the quality is up. Addictive and dangerous, heroin becomes even more deadly when laced with fentanyl, a powerful narcotic, as was the case with some of the heroin found to have killed its users in the Commonwealth. The southeastern Massachusetts town of Taunton has emerged as ground zero, with 64 heroin overdoses and five fatalities so far this year, putting the town on a pace to exceed all of its reported overdoses in 2013 by the end of March. But to one degree or another, the problem permeates the state.
The stereotype of the heroin addict as inner-city reprobate should be discarded. Heroin is a problem in rural and suburban communities as well as cities. It afflicts families up and down the socioeconomic ladder. This is in large part because the gateway drug is often an opiate such as Oxycontin used as a painkiller. Countywide prescriptions for narcotic painkillers have risen 500 percent over the past 12 years according to the Berkshire District Attorney’s Office (Eagle, January 20).
"Not everyone began as an addict; sometimes they began as a patient," said Joanne Peterson, founder of Learn 2 Cope, a support group for relatives of drug users, in Tuesday’s Boston Globe. Doctors must be cautious in prescribing painkillers and diligent in following up with patients given painkillers to determine if they have become addicted to the legal drugs or moved on to illegal ones. Imaginative treatment programs should be pursued such as the Medicine is Exercise program begun in January by the Northern Berkshire YMCA. The Y is urging doctors who have prescribed painkillers to patients to also enroll them in its exercise program to treat the root cause of their pain issue.
The regular news stories in The Eagle on heroin arrests and prosecutions attest to the extent of the epidemic and the aggressive response to it by Berkshire law enforcement authorities. Dealers deserve long sentences, while users need treatment, which can be lengthy and expensive and include relapses. The community must be involved along with law and health professionals. The NBYMCA proposal emerged at a community forum hosted by the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition. The Berkshire Opiate Abuse and Prevention Collaborative is taking on the problem at a grass-roots level. Heroin addiction is a community problem, and there will be no solution or even progress toward one without community involvement.