Clarence Fanto: Confronting the scourge among us




here’s the outrage?

Since last November, the number of fatal heroin ovedoses in Massachusetts has exceeded the number of traffic deaths. The scourge, apparenly resulting from a more potent version of the drug combined with the opiod painkiller fetanyl, is claiming lives all over the state and elsewhere in the region. Rural and suburban areas are just as vulnerable as major cities, if not more so.

It’s worth noting that fentanyl is 100 times more powerful than morphine, and recreational use of a disastrous brew with heroin is widely blamed for the heroin epidemic that is finally attracting some belated attention as a public health emergency.

A state police tally, cited in the Boston Globe, shows 185 deaths from suspected heroin overdoses statewide since Nov. 1. But the numbers from Boston, Springfield and Worcester have not been compiled, so the actual total is significantly higher.

Communities on Cape Cod and cities outside Boston, notably Taunton, have been hard hit. Police sources in the Berkshires have confirmed a number of heroin-overdose fatalities in the county, though exact statistics were not immediately available.


Just east of us, Franklin County Sheriff Christopher Donelan has been especially outspoken on the issue: "It’s not just your back-alley junkie doing heroin anymore. It could be any kid, in any neighborhood, in any demographic." Donelan, fearing the response to the epidemic may be too little and too late, told the Globe that the abuse of heroin and opiates may be difficult to reverse.

"We need to completely reevaluate how we treat addiction," he asserted. "The old infrastructure we have for alcoholics, or marijuana or cocaine abusers, isn’t what’s needed for heroin addiction."

According to David Procopio, the spokesman for the state police, the rate of fatal heroin overdoses has increased over the previous year, though no statistics were available for a precise comparison.

The state’s Department of Public Health releases figures annually; for the latest available year, 2011, the total was 642, compared to 363 in the year 2000. There were 349 fatalities from car crashes statewide in 2012, the National Highway Safety Administration has reported.

It’s clear that the price of heroin has declined and it has become more easily available, especially in comparison to prescription-drug opiates that have also been abused in recent years.

While additional special drug courts have been proposed to expedite cases, public education is urgently needed.

Narcan, an antidote that can reverse heroin overdoses, is being administered by some state or local police agencies. While that can save lives, it’s only a Band-Aid on the crisis and raises the question of whether public safety officers should be administering medical treatments.

Obviously, if they’re trained to do so and arrive on the scene ahead of paramedics, no one would question their ability to prevent a death. In the Boston suburb of Quincy, police have been carrying Narcan (the trade name for the drug naloxone) and administered the drug 221 times in the past three years, succeeding in reversing 211 overdoses. In one case last fall, Quincy police serving as security during the parade celebrating Boston’s World Series victory saved a 20-year-old woman who had overdosed on heroin, according to published reports.

Drug users, friends and family who might fear arrest if they call 911 for help in an overdose emergency can be reassured that Good Samaritan laws in Massachusetts and most other states protect people in a medical crisis.

"It’s easy for the cynical person to say, ‘Oh, they’re druggies, they’re junkies, let them die.’ But when you put a name and a face and a family to that, then it’s a different story," Mayor Thomas Koch of Quincy told USA Today. "Some people who go down this road will never come back, but if we can bring them back, there’s always hope."

Early last month, in his annual State of the State message, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin devoted his entire 34-minute address to "a full-blown heroin crisis" sweeping his mostly rural, bucolic state.

"In every corner of our state, heroin and opiate drug addiction threatens us," he said. "The time has come for us to stop quietly averting our eyes from the growing heroin addiction in our front yards, while we fear and fight treatment facilities in our backyards." In his state, deaths from heroin overdoses doubled in 2013 compared to the previous year, he pointed out.

Vermont’s Health Commissioner, Dr. Harry L. Chen, has cited reports from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control that the highest rates for substance abuse are found in New England and the overall Northeast region -- apparently because of easy access for drug dealers from New York, Boston and Philadelphia, as well as a growing demand.


Berkshire County District Attorney David Capeless, Sheriff Thomas Bowler and experts such as Dr. Jennifer Michaels of the Brien Center in Pittsfield have been in the forefront of combating drug abuse in recent years. A high-profile countywide forum should be convened as soon as possible to help confront the same epidemic that has swept regions around us.

Capeless told me on Thursday that in 2013, there were 16 "known and suspected" fatal heroin overdoses in Berkshire County, with five confirmed. So far this year, two to four suspected cases have been reported.

"I’m very frustrated about getting the hard information," he said, "but I’m glad people are finally seeing this as a crisis and epidemic."

As a public health issue, more and better treatment is needed from the medical community, Capeless added, while the criminal justice system must handle heroin dealers.

"The Hungry Heart," a documentary film about drug addiction in Vermont, features Skowhegan, Maine, resident Skip Gates, who lost his son Will, a University of Vermont student and ski racer, to a fatal heroin overdose in 2009.

"I never knew any human being could feel this much pain," Gates said of his son’s death. "It has redefined the rest of my life."

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