PITTSFIELD >> During a stop in the Berkshires, Attorney General Maura Healey on Thursday urged a continued hard focus on treatment, enforcement, legislative and other initiatives to combat opiate abuse and overuse of prescription pain medications.
"It is such an important issue," Healey said of rising opioid addiction rates, which in 2014 led to an estimated more than 1,200 unintentional overdose deaths in the state. While progress has been made, she said, "I don't think we've seen its zenith."
One positive development, Healey said, was passage of a bill in November that specifically criminalized trafficking in the synthetic opioid fentanyl, adding 10 years to the maximum prison term. Healey, in proposing the legislation earlier this year, called for a statute similar to trafficking laws covering heroin, cocaine and other drugs, which had not been in place for fentanyl.
Yet, she said fentanyl can be made 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin and is sometimes mixed with heroin, thus contributing to the soaring number of overdose deaths in Massachusetts.
A multi-part legislative proposal by Gov. Charlie Baker to provide more funding for treatment for addiction and related initiatives is still before lawmakers, as are other initiatives proposed in the House and Senate. Healey said it is important that lawmakers go to work again on those bills in January.
"That should be the first order of business after the [holiday] break," she said.
The attorney general co-chaired a task force earlier this year that made a series of recommendations that were incorporated into Baker's proposals to combat opioid abuse and addiction. One aspect calls for closer monitoring of proscriptions for potentially addictive pain medications, like oxycodone.
Berkshire District Attorney David F. Capeless is among officials who have called for greater regulation of prescriptions for powerful medications.
Reflecting her close involvement with the issue, Healey provided some sobering statistics, such as that four of five people addicted to opioids started out on prescription drugs, and an estimated 250 million prescriptions for pain medications were written in the United States last year.
She also stressed the importance of education on the dangers of addiction and having an awareness "of what a pill happy culture we are."
Her office is also looking at the pricing practices companies use to set prescription drug prices, sometimes reaching out to the manufacturers. In one instance related to the opioid crisis, she said the rising price of Narcan, which is used to treat drug overdose victims, was stabilized through a bulk purchase agreement for Massachusetts communities she worked out with the manufacturer, Amphastar Pharmaceuticals.
The price of Narcan had risen at the same time the opioid addiction and overdose crisis was escalating in the region, prompting an outcry.
Opioid addiction also has "cut all across our culture," she said, ruining the lives of people from all social and economic classes.
Healey said the high cost of many prescription drugs, as well as advertising practices of pharmaceutical firms is another focus of her office, although she said that problem will also require action on the federal level.
She said her office has been working with U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., on that and other issues.
An opponent of legalizing recreational use of marijuana — the aim of a proposed ballot initiative that could go before voters next year — Healey said her staff is reaching out to contacts in states that have legalized its use to learn about their experiences and concerns. She said that if a ballot initiative is passed, she wants to be able to weigh in on the regulatory structure for legalizing marijuana.
"I think a regulatory response around this is really important," she said.
Clarifying her position on marijuana, Healey said she supported legalizing medical marijuana and supported decriminalization for possession of small amounts of the drug while opposing mandatory prison sentences for possession.
"But I draw the line on recreational marijuana," she said. "I don't think people understand the implications, particularly for young people. We ought to go slow here."
In opposing legalization of recreational marijuana, Healey is expected to be joined by Baker, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh and the Massachusetts Medical Society, all of whom have taken a stand against legalizations.