Panel discussion at BCC probes 'solutions in our community' to addiction


Photo Gallery | Free screening and panel discussion of 'Heroin: Cape Cod, USA'

Related | Congressman Neal tours Pittsfield clinics built to help with opioid addiction crisis

PITTSFIELD — Again and again viewers saw the syringe full of yellowish fluid pierce an arm, a hand, even a neck, perhaps imagining — or re-living — how the scourge depicted in "Heroin: Cape Cod, USA" is right here in Berkshire County.

Growing concern among the general public about the issue of opiate addiction was reflected by the turnout of more than 150 people for a Tuesday showing of the graphic documentary at Berkshire Community College.

"Every one of us here in this auditorium knows a family member, or knows of somebody else's family member who is battling addiction," U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, who hosted the showing, said.

A slew of local law enforcement and political officials joined Neal there, in addition to Lise Balk King, co-producer of the film. A forum discussion followed the movie.

Sheriff Thomas Bowler said Cape Cod — where 86 percent of crime stems from opiate addiction — very much resembles the Berkshires. He said nine out of 10 inmates at Berkshire County Jail & House of Correction suffer addiction issues.

"What everyone here has to understand is this new epidemic that we're dealing with, this opiate crisis, this is not a short-term fix," Bowler said. "This does not happen with seven-day detox, 14-day detox, 21-day detox. This is, in my opinion, a six-month or longer fix."

The film's subjects — some of whom are now dead of overdoses — aptly demonstrated this point, bouncing from rehab to relapses and struggling with feelings of hopelessness. The film was directed by Oscar winner Steven Okazaki.

Spoken by various politicians and panelists, a call to de-emphasize punishment and multiply services available to treat addiction like other illnesses proved particularly resonant among the audience.

"The notion that we can treat this through punishment is not working very well, and there has to be a corresponding effort to help get people back up on their feet," Neal said.

North Adams Mayor Richard J. Alcombright was interrupted by applause when he said the War on Drugs "never truly worked."

The mayor said he's committed to a "no holding back strategy," involving sober living homes, Narcan for first responders, methadone clinics and other methods.

"If we want solutions in our community, we can't turn our backs on anything," Alcombright said. "Addiction is not a one-size-fits-all."

Amanda Timpane, executive director of Great Barrington's Railroad Street Youth Project, echoed similar sentiments.

"We have to change our thinking from a War on Drugs mentality to a healing mentality," Timpane said. "If we're going to look at addiction as a disease, then we have to ask ourselves, 'How do we heal?' We can't throw anybody away."

Brien Center CEO Christine Macbeth also attended and said her organization is constantly seeking more revenue sources to fund addiction relief efforts, and probably needs one or two more recovery homes.

Thirty people died of overdose deaths in Berkshire County in 2015, and Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn said at the panel Tuesday there have been 64 emergency overdose responses in Pittsfield so far in 2016, which resulted in as many as 12 deaths.

According to the state Department of Public Health, the number of people receiving emergency medical services due to opioid use has skyrocketed from 6,315 to 11,884 between 2013 and 2015.

Wynn said police work surrounding heroin is not easy. As the film depicts, small town and city heroin dealers are frequently users selling to support their habits, unlike cocaine and crack dealers who largely operate in cartels and gangs, Wynn said.

"That's much more difficult for us to interdict," Wynn said. "We're trying to make cases against distributors. That's what we're interested in."

District Attorney David Capeless said headway will be made fighting local addiction issues only through providing services to addicts and working to "rid our communities of the source of addiction on the streets and in our doctor's offices."

"I've often said that individuals do not suffer from substance abuse," District Attorney David Capeless said at Tuesday's event. "Their parents suffer, their children do, their friends and siblings suffer from it and the community suffers from it."

He added, "We need to stop how this starts, how it persists and we need to prevent how too often it tragically ends," Capeless said. "We're going to be successful only if we relentlessly pursue both those goals."

"We are not alone in our pain and our suffering here, nor are we alone in seeking solutions, as evidenced by everyone who's here tonight," King said.

Contact Phil Demers at 413-496-6214.


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