Lawmakers, law enforcement urge concerted effort to combat region’s heroin problem

Monday, April 07, 2014
GREENFIELD — The federal war on drugs is a failure, and Franklin County can be a model for an alternative use for the money spent eradicating opium crops in another hemisphere.

That was Congressman James McGovern’s message for the crowd attending Monday’s conference at Greenfield Community College.

“I want you to succeed because I want your efforts to serve as a guide for the federal government so that we can take some of these resources that we’re dumping overseas and start directing them back here to start helping the people who need them most,” McGovern said, cut off by applause.

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Sponsored by the Opioid Education and Awareness Task Force, the conference drew legislators, top court officials and an audience numbering somewhere between 300 and 400, with late arrivals directed to an overflow room to watch the conference via video feed.

“We once thought that we were immune to big city problems but now we are painfully aware that no one is immune,” said Franklin County Sheriff Christopher Donelan.

That growing problem has been highlighted recently by a surge in overdose deaths. Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan said the number of suspected overdoses in his jurisdiction — Franklin and Hampshire counties and Athol — is now 11 since mid-December.

The audience heard from local officials and concerned professionals about the problem in the region and about solutions implemented as far away as South Boston and Woburn, in Middlesex County, where Police Chief Robert Ferullo Jr. has redesigned his department to meet the problem head-on.

“I have 100 police officers, more or less, 96, and we’re social workers who carry guns,” Ferullo said. He said his officers are trained not to try to arrest their way out of the addiction problem, a message he said he tries to communicate to parents; they can call his department for help and not expect to see their child arrested.

Ferullo collaborates closely with his county’s Heroin Education and Awareness Taskforce. Better know as HEAT, the program concentrates on education, building collaboration among disparate agencies, and, with the support of local legislators and the Bureau of Substance Abuse Services, has money at its disposal to fund stays in treatment programs for the mostly young people brought to the district court probation officers who spearhead the initiative.

Judge William Mazanec, first justice of the Greenfield District Court, said many of the people standing before him in court are not 30 and 35 years old, but 18 to 22 years old.

“We need to address education,” Mazanec said. “It is starting when they are 17 years old. The juvenile brain is vulnerable to be susceptible to addiction.”

He stressed the need for a collaborative effort between legislators, law enforcement, school superintendents and principals to start educating students early on about drug use.

“It’s happening to wealthy families, to poor families. It doesn’t know any boundaries,” Mazanec said.

Speaking at the end of the three-hour conference, McGovern said he knows people who are fighting addiction and people who have died of it, and there is no silver-bullet solution.

“I think we need to adopt every single successful strategy and put it to work in this community,” McGovern said.

Getting the money for those efforts was a frequent theme.

“We need to work aggressively to ensure that every individual who is caught up in this problem has a facility, an opportunity, a program that will meet their needs,” said state Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst.

Rosenberg suggested changing the state and federal insurance program reimbursement rates for treatment as a first step, saying the programs serve as a last resort but their reimbursements are inadequate, meaning fewer of their clients get into treatment programs.

Beyond that, more money is needed for more treatment beds.

“We need the beds, we need the programs and we need them as quickly as possible, so my colleagues that are here today ... and everyone else, we all we need to make this a budget priority this year,” Rosenberg said.

A Senate special committee formed recently on addiction and resources is touring the state and its recommendations are expected in time for the Senate budget debate, he said, and two representatives have proposed bills, one seeking to identify best practices for treatment in prisons and another in the community. A component of this would make the Department of Public Health the provider of last resort, he said, responsible for ensuring adequate treatment.

Rosenberg and McGovern both said voters have a responsibility. Rosenberg pointed to an alcohol sales tax repealed several years ago that would have directly funded substance abuse treatment programs. McGovern said it is popular among politicians and at forums to call for immediate access to treatment, but this often bogs down at the practical level with talk of “not in my backyard.”