The state's opioid addiction must be fought on a variety of fronts. One of the most critical is at the root — the over-prescribing of painkillers.
Berkshire District Attorney David Capeless made this point emphatically in a statement on Friday. While praising Berkshire Health Systems for educating its doctors on the risks involved in prescribing opioids, Mr. Capeless expressed dismay at a recent conference hosted by the Massachusetts Medical Society and U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz where the district attorney said that opioid over-prescribing went unaddressed while doctors blamed patients for their addictions. (Berkshire Eagle, November 7.)
Pain management is obviously something that medical professionals must take seriously, but over-treatment can create a whole new set of problems. When prescriptions run out, newly created opioid addicts may join the thriving illegal market for prescription painkillers. As they are expensive without health insurance, those addicted may turn to another thriving market — heroin, which is plentiful and far cheaper. Heroin addiction ruins lives and families, and too often ends in death. Mr. Capeless, like everyone in the law enforcement community, has seen the damage done on a regular basis.
To address opioid over-prescription, the district attorney supports legislation offered by Governor Charlie Baker limiting the initial prescription of painkillers, requiring that physicians consult a state prescription database before prescribing painkillers, and giving medical professionals the ability to commit patients for substance abuse treatments before they become a risk to themselves or others. The latter provision is controversial, but the state has experienced too many deaths, including those of young children, at the hands of the heroin addicted.
This legislative effort coincides with the governor's "State Without StigMA" campaign to attack the stigma of addiction that can prevent addicts from seeking treatment in their communities. Heroin addiction afflicts blacks and whites, rich and poor, the well-educated and the securely employed. Addicts aren't "them," they are "us."
The proposed legislation and the anti-stigma campaign are all part of an ongoing effort in the Berkshires and Massachusetts to combat a persistent and growing health epidemic that is our contemporary version of the plague. Defeating it will require help from everyone.