Governor declares heroin public health emergency; DA welcomes extra resources

Last modified: Monday, April 07, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — The top prosecutor in Hampshire and Franklin counties hailed Gov. Deval Patrick’s decision Thursday to declare a public health emergency in Massachusetts in response to the state’s growing epidemic of heroin overdoses and opiate addiction.

Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan said Patrick’s announcement is “big step forward” in addressing a crisis that has caught up to western Massachusetts at an alarming rate. Heroin-related overdoses have resulted in 20 deaths in Hampshire and Franklin counties in the last four months.

“Taking concrete steps to prevent prescriptions drug addiction will significantly reduce the risk of heroin addiction and the human misery and death it brings,” Sullivan said. “I look forward to working with the Patrick administration and community to address this opioid epidemic.”

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Patrick’s emergency order will allow first responders to carry the overdose drug naloxone — more commonly known by the brand name Narcan — and also make the drug more easily available by prescription to friends and family members of people battling addiction.

The governor also said his administration will dedicate an additional $20 million for addiction and recovery services to the general public and through the Department of Correction.

“We have right now an opioid epidemic,” Patrick said at an afternoon news conference in Boston. “So we will treat it like the public health crisis that it is.”

Patrick said that he’s also moving to immediately ban the prescription and dispensing of the painkiller Zohydro, the first single-ingredient hydrocodone drug approved for U.S. patients. He has sent letters to Congress and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius asking that the drug be banned. Members of Congress have also petitioned the Food and Drug Administration not to approve the drug in its current form.

San Diego-based Zogenix, which makes Zohydro, criticized Patrick’s move, saying it will add to patient suffering in Massachusetts.

“The simple fact is that any medication, including opioid pain relievers, presents a danger to the person misusing or abusing it,” the company said, adding that it has taken steps to help safeguard against abuse.

Patrick said he fears the pill, which comes in a crushable form which he said makes it easier to abuse, could add to an epidemic of opiate abuse blamed for about 140 deaths from suspected heroin overdoses in Massachusetts over the past few months. Twenty of those deaths have occurred in Hampshire and Franklin counties over a four-month period from November to February.

“This wave of overdoses, both fatal and non-fatal, has really hit Massachusetts hard in the last year,” Sullivan said. “It’s really a national crisis, too, stretching all the way up and down the Eastern Seaboard. The rural areas are now getting hit hard.”

Sullivan said the heroin, which originates in South America, is entering the region from New York and heads up the Interstate 91 corridor, which some have dubbed the “heroin highway.” He said the heroin is much more pure than it used to be, and at $5 a bag is considerably cheaper to get than prescription painkillers.

“It really is the perfect storm of cheap, potent heroin,” Sullivan said.

Cheryl Bartlett, commissioner of the Department of Public Health, said many younger users take the drugs alone and some who are coming out of jail or treatment programs don’t realize the effect the drugs’ potency will have on their bodies.

Patrick also said he will use the emergency declaration to speed up the phase-in of a 2012 law that mandates doctors and pharmacists use the state’s prescription monitoring program. The program — designed to safeguard against abuse or misuse of prescription drugs — was voluntary before the law.

Sullivan said all the steps Patrick has oultined will save lives and reduce opiate-related crime. These are key steps supported by the recently formed Opioid Education and Awareness Task Force of Franklin, Hampshire and North Quabbin Region, of which he is a founding member. The task force concentrates on education and outreach to parents and schools and focuses on the need to provide efficient and available treatment for those who use and abuse heroin.

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. Prescription drug take-back events are also an important way for people to turn in unused prescription drugs, especially given that most abused medications come from the homes of friends and family, Sullivan said. The next prescription take-back day in the region is April 26.

The task force is also about to launch a “prescriber pledge” initiative, asking every health professional in the state’s four western counties to pledge to prescribe such painkillers only when absolutely necessary, Sullivan said.

The district attorney is hopeful some of the $20 million will make its way to western Massachusetts in the form of detoxification and treatment centers. Other than the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Leeds, there are no treatment beds in Hampshire or Franklin counties, Sullivan said. Jails in both counties are licensed as detox centers, but they only treat people who have been arrested for drug possession or stealing to support their habit.

“It’s a sad fact that we don’t have local treatment beds to take care of people,” Sullivan said.

Trial Court Chief Justice Paula Carey joined Patrick to call for an expansion of the state’s drug court program, which helps get people into treatment or diversion programs. There are currently 19 drug courts and Carey said there should be five more.

“Drug courts work,” she said. “We are bursting at the seams.” The increase in overdose deaths has also caught the attention of state lawmakers.

Senate President Therese Murray, testifying at a public hearing Tuesday of the newly formed Special Committee on Drug Abuse and Treatment Options, said the costs of drug addiction are high to families and the economy, and also pose a safety threat to communities.

“Addiction is a chronic disease and it should be treated as such,” Murray said. “If this were a flu epidemic, there would be thousands of specialists knocking at our door.”