Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan says opioid overdoses a ‘public health crisis’

Last modified: Thursday, March 20, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan said that while State Police data released Tuesday show 19 heroin overdose deaths in his jurisdiction during the last four months, that does not paint a full picture of how dire the heroin problem is here.

“It certainly demonstrates an increase in the number of fatal overdoses,” he said Wednesday night. “But just as important are the non-fatal overdoses. Our hospitals and EMTs have really seen an increase in the number of people coming in with opioid overdoses.”

“We’re in the midst of a public health crisis,” he added.

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Sullivan said the 19 overdose deaths that have occurred in Hampshire and Franklin counties since Nov. 1 is approximately twice the rate in the entire state. That is also a significant increase over the number of deaths in the same area in 2011, the last year for which the data is available. In all of 2011, there were 13 deaths attributed to any variety of overdoses in the two counties, according to the state Department of Public Health.

Statewide, the State Police said they are aware of at least 185 heroin overdose deaths in the past four months, as counted by homicide units attached to district attorney’s offices. The statistics exclude Springfield, Worcester and Boston.

The state police said they released these statewide statistics because of a growing awareness of an increase in heroin use and overdoses in recent months.

David Procopio, director of media relations for the state police, in a statement identified four possible contributing factors: a very potent strain of heroin; suppliers cutting heroin with a synthetic substance, perhaps powerful painkiller Fentanyl; use of heroin with other drugs such as prescription painkiller Percocet, and the fact that heroin is easier for users to obtain than prescription narcotics.

Sullivan said he suspects a very potent strain of heroin has made it to western Massachusetts, although he has not seen evidence that the Fentanyl-laced heroin is in the area. “Heroin has never been more potent and more cheap,” he said. “They don’t know what they’re taking. They play Russian roulette every time they use.”

Sullivan, a founding member of the area’s Opioid Education and Awareness Task Force, said that a conference sponsored by the task force at Greenfield Community College Monday featured a serious discussion about how to address the problem.

Most felt that education about opioid addiction and more detoxification and treatment centers would be the most effective ways to reverse the trend.

Since many people start using heroin after getting addicted to painkillers such as Percocet, parents and teens need to be educated about the dangers of using prescription pain medications. Most importantly, Sullivan said he wants to educate doctors, nurses and dentists about when those painkillers should be prescribed.

“You could be just a regular person with a full-time job and you get a back injury and you’re given pain meds by your physician. You could get hooked, and you don’t know how to stop,” he said. “Before they hand out these prescriptions, they should check if the person has history of addiction or if they even really need them. It should be a last resort.”

While preventing addiction would be preferable, he said, the area also needs more residential substance abuse treatment centers for those who are already addicted. Most often, the only detoxification addicts get is when they go to jail for drug possession or stealing to support their habit, he said.

“The two biggest detox facilities in my jurisdiction are the Hampshire County House of Correction and Franklin County House of Correction,” Sullivan said.

“Western Massachusetts does not have enough beds for detoxification or for short-term or long-term care,” he added. “That’s where the state needs to move their resources.”

Sullivan said that if the state can better prevent and treat opioid addiction, there would be many fewer arrests for possession, robberies, and similar drug-related crimes.

Here are the number of fatal heroin overdoses since Nov. 1 in other counties: Berkshire 2, Bristol 34, Cape and Islands 9,  Essex 22, Hampden (not including Springfield) 12, Middlesex 30, Norfolk 15, Plymouth 20, Suffolk (not including Boston) 10, and Worcester (not including City of Worcester) 12.

Recorder staff writer Chris Shores contributed to this article. Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.