Editorial: Multiple efforts needed to battle drugs

  • Former University of Massachusetts graduate student Jesse Carrillo, left, leaves the courtroom June 1, 2017 with his defense attorney J.W. Carney Jr. following Carrillo's sentencing at Hampshire Superior Court in Northampton. He was found guilty on charges of involuntary manslaughter and distributing heroin following the 2013 overdose death of Eric Sinacori.  GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Friday, June 16, 2017

A jury sent an important message last month when it convicted Jesse Carrillo of involuntary manslaughter after the heroin he supplied to fellow University of Massachusetts student Eric Sinacori led to the 20-year-old’s death by overdose in 2013.

Prosecutors did not claim that Carrillo set out to cause Sinacori’s death, nor that Carrillo had sold the drug for profit. But in supplying a substance that put Sinacori in harm’s way, they argued, Carrillo bore a moral and legal responsibility.

“Any time someone makes the conscious decision to sell or distribute drugs — particularly an inherently dangerous drug like heroin — they are no longer just jeopardizing their own lives, they are jeopardizing the lives of anyone who may consume those drugs,” First Assistant Northwestern District Attorney Steven Gagne told Gazette reporter Emily Cutts.

Manslaughter convictions in drug overdose cases are unusual but not unprecedented. Carrillo’s lawyer and others argue, however, that they are emblematic of a criminal justice system that emphasizes punishing people who suffer from drug addiction instead of using treatment to break the cycle of addiction and harm.

Northampton defense attorney Alan Rubin, of the Committee for Public Counsel Services, was not involved in Carrillo’s case. But Rubin says that, broadly, criminal penalties for cases involving the most addictive drugs aren’t nearly as effective as treatment — something that all involved acknowledge is in woefully short supply.

“I don’t say that I have any miracle cure but locking up people and punishing people doesn’t seem to play any role,” he said. “As always, there is never enough funding for the long-term, intense treatment that seems to be the most successful.”

The need for prevention and treatment — and for the community to embrace that need — echoed through an event sponsored by the Hampshire HOPE coalition and the district attorney’s office Thursday.

Deb McNeice was one of the grieving parents who joined law enforcement and addiction treatment advocates to memorialize the growing number of lives lost to the opioid epidemic. Her son, Patrick Brown, died last year at age 28 after being released from a treatment program that, apparently, did not bring him far enough along.

“There was that gap after treatment,” she recalled. “That’s a spot that there has to be a continuation of care. We were just blindsided.”

In addition to prosecuting cases such as Carrillo’s, District Attorney David E. Sullivan and his staff deserve credit for raising community awareness about the opioid crisis and pushing for more prevention efforts and treatment options. And in the words they choose, they make clear they understand the human frailty beneath it all.

“Harm reduction is the radical notion that drug users are people,” Sullivan said Thursday, adding that they are “deserving of love even when it feels really hard. We have a sacred responsibility to care for one another.”

The Hampshire HOPE coalition will spend the next year coordinating efforts to turn the tide of addiction, including closing gaps in service and training medical professionals to administer the addiction treatment medication buprenorphine, Sullivan said.

The closeness of the Pioneer Valley community bodes well for the journey ahead, former Obama administration drug policy chief Michael Botticelli told the group. “Everybody knows people here,” said Botticelli, who built his career at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health before going to Washington. “That’s your strength.”

In the fight against opioid addiction, many kinds of strength are needed. It begins with judicious enforcement of laws but then expands to an increasing emphasis on public education, prevention and short- and long-term treatment.

Only that combination of efforts will return people from lives enslaved by drugs to healthy participation in the communities that never gave up on them.