Our Opinion: The rural reality of opioid addiction

Among the myths attached to opioid addiction making it a challenge to confront the epidemic plaguing the Berkshires, state and nation is that it is strictly an urban issue. In fact, the epidemic rages in small, otherwise bucolic Western Massachusetts communities as well.

This was the point made by U.S. Representative Richard Neal, a Springfield Democrat, Michael Botticelli, the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy under President Obama, and others Thursday morning at a forum in Shelburne Falls (Eagle, October 20.) Berkshire County loses 30 people a year on average to overdose deaths, and statistics cannot account for the otherwise productive lives lost to addiction.

The county and state have addressed the epidemic on a number of fronts. There are Berkshire organizations that offer treatment to addicts, and law enforcement is focused less on punishment and more on linking addicts to those agencies. Needle-exchange programs reduce disease and bring addicts out of the shadows and into treatment. But while the grievous shortage of beds in treatment centers is being addressed in the Berkshires with state aide, there still aren't enough to meet the need.

Mr. Botticelli, who is now the executive director of the Grayken Center for Addiction at Boston Medical Center, spoke with pride Thursday of the leadership role Massachusetts has taken in addiction-recovery, but observed that Washington, D.C. has not kept up the pace, adding "I hope this administration doesn't muck it up." President Trump made many promises to address the opioid epidemic on the campaign trail, most notably in nearby New Hampshire, but he has not built a reputation as president for following up on campaign promises with actual policies or showing empathy to those who require help. The president has indicated he will address opioids in the week ahead, and one way or another the federal effort has to become as determined as are the efforts in Massachusetts.

Prescription painkillers are a major contributor to the addiction problem, prompting Northwest District Attorney David Sullivan to declare Thursday, "We blew it over the last 25 years because we allowed pills to be distributed like candy." The medical community is addressing the over-prescribing of prescription drugs, but damage has been done. The Western Massachusetts community of Greenfield is suing three large pharmaceutical distributors to recover town funds spent on Narcan, prevention, treatment, law enforcement and other efforts necessitated by the opioid epidemic (Eagle, October 20). State Attorney General Maura Healey and some of her colleagues in other states are exploring whether the pharmaceutical firms put profits above their responsibility to describe the potential risks of painkillers. If they conclude that was the case, legal action is likely to follow.

"It will take a whole community to raise us out of addiction," said Annie Parkinson, regional coordinator for the Central and Western Massachusetts Organization for Addiction Recovery, on Thursday, a comment that echoes the thinking of the Berkshire groups on the front lines of that battle. The community can contribute by fighting the stigma attached to addiction that can prevent addicts and their families from coming forward to seek help. The community must also counter the myths, such as addiction being a problem only in city neighborhoods. Opioid addiction is a problem everywhere and everyone must play a part in ending it.


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