Our Opinion: Putting a face on heroin epidemic
The statistics on the dramatic increase in cases of heroin and other opioid addictions treated at the Brien Center in Pittsfield are harrowing. The numbers are given faces in the anecdotal evidence of the ease in which heroin can be found in communities like North Adams and in the circumstances of the death of Joshua Bressette, a heroin addict from that city found dead in the Bronx, N.Y. two months ago from gun-shots to the head and back. Opioid addiction has reached epidemic levels in the Berkshires, and it is an epidemic that no family, no community can consider itself immune to.
In 2013, 57 percent of patients at the Brien Center were treated for alcohol abuse compared to 23 percent for heroin and opioid addiction. Halfway through 2014, 46 percent have been treated for heroin and opioid abuse and 43 percent for alcohol abuse, a stunning swing. (Derek Gentile, Eagle, Saturday, June 28.) It’s encouraging that treatment is available, but disturbing that there is so much demand.
Berkshire County is certainly not unique, as heroin addiction is a rapidly growing public health problem throughout New England and the United States. Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin devoted his entire state of the state speech to the scourge spreading through the Green Mountain State. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has dedicated $20 million for treatment services and has joined his fellow New England governors in developing a regional plan to attack a problem that is poisoning people and costing
taxpayers plenty to pay for jail time that doesn’t provide a solution.
Often, the path downward begins with an addiction to prescription painkillers, and the medical community is acting to eliminate the over-prescribing of drugs like oxycontin and to better safeguard supplies. Addiction to painkillers can lead to addiction to heroin, which is plentiful and inexpensive, and increasingly dangerous.
In an interview with The Boston Globe Sunday, Michael Ferguson, the acting special agent in charge of the New England division of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said that heroin for the most part begins its journey in Colombia where it is produced and shipped to Mexico. Cartels there often load it with fentanyl, a potent painkiller that increases the addictive quality of heroin and contributes to the rapid rise in deaths caused by its usage. (Sixteen in the Berkshires in 2013).
Suppliers drive to the border to pick up the drug, continued Mr. Ferguson, and transport it back to major regional distribution points like New York City and Hartford, Connecticut. From there, the drug fans out across New England, to rich suburbs, middle class communities and poor neighborhoods. Stereotypes of heroin abusers drawn from books, movies or music should be tossed aside -- as Brien Center medical director Dr. Jennifer Michaels said in Saturday’s Eagle, there is no longer a typical heroin or opioid abuser.
Federal, state and local law enforcement agencies are addressing the problem from a criminal prosecution front, but as Berkshire District Attorney David Capeless said in one of Adam Shanks’ two stories Sunday on Joshua Bressette, police work must be accompanied by community efforts to provide treatment for addicts and reduce the market for heroin. Berkshire County is making this effort through the Brien Center, the McGee Center at Berkshire Medical Center, the Berkshire County Sheriff’s Office and other agencies, and ideally those skyrocketing treatment numbers at the Brien Center indicate that addicts are now more willing to reach out for help.
While there are no typical heroin addicts, Joshua Bressette, a loving son with loyal friends, was probably not atypical. His addiction, according to those interviewed by Adam Shanks, unfortunately led to dealing, and his death may be connected to his acting as an informant for law enforcement authorities. His mother, Kenna Waterman, has created a fund to provide treatment for at least one heroin addict a year at a rehabilitation facility. That is a good way to remember Joshua and it makes a statement because, as Dr. Michaels says, "Treatment works." Encouraging addicts to get that treatment and making sure they have treatment options will reverse the epidemic, and make it less likely that any other Berkshires residents will follow the path that led Joshua Bressette to a sad and untimely death.