Task force on region’s heroin addiction organizes forum in Greenfield
GREENFIELD — The task force leading the local fight against heroin addiction has invited lawmakers, top court officials and leaders of successful anti-addiction efforts from the eastern part of the state to a community conference Monday.
“Heroin: a community response to a community crisis” is intended as the first of what will be an annual conference addressing the rising tide of addiction in the area. The conference is scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. in the Greenfield Community College dining hall, 1 College Drive. It is free and open to the public.
“I guess the hope is that we’re able to learn from these communities that have been through this epidemic, crises, years back and have all these tools in place to help them help,” said Franklin Register of Probate and Family Court John Merrigan.
Merrigan, with Franklin County Sheriff Christopher Donelan and Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan formed the Opioid Education and Awareness Task Force last year, seeking a united approach to the problem across Franklin and Hampshire counties and the North Quabbin Region.
Speakers include John McGahan, founder of the Gavin Foundation treatment program, and the founders of the Woburn District Court’s Heroin Education Awareness Task Force.
The first program was born in response to the heroin problem in South Boston in the 1990s, the second in response to a similar problem in Middlesex County in the middle of the last decade.
Merrigan said those communities are in many respects very different from the Franklin County area, but can offer a road map. The conference has been in the works for months.
“We’ve been going since the fall trying to organize schedules to make this event happen, and never in a million years did I anticipate that we’d be rolling out this forum at a time when there’s been so much death and destruction from heroin,” Merrigan said.
The task force began with a discussion about opioid abuse and the availability of prescription pills, he said.
“That was six months ago, eight months ago, and now it’s turned into a full-blown heroin epidemic that’s just killing people on a weekly basis ... at different periods of over the past couple of months, every week or so you might see that the ER is jammed on the weekends and that a number of people have died.”
At the end of January, the district attorney’s office counted nine suspected overdose deaths in the preceding 40 days in Franklin and Hampshire counties.
Interviewed last week, Chief Probation Officer Vincent Piro of the Woburn District Court said that from conversations with Merrigan he believes the Franklin County area is now where Middlesex was eight years ago, in terms of the problem and mobilization of efforts to deal with it.
Piro and Probation Officer Michael Higgins of the Woburn District Court founded the Heroin Education Awareness Task Force, commonly abbreviated as HEAT, eight years ago in response to a budding heroin problem in Middlesex County.
Alerted by a surge in crime among an unusual demographic, young women, the two began looking for a cause.
The answer they found was that those new criminals were being introduced to opiates through older boyfriends, and then following what has become a familiar progression from crushing and snorting or smoking Percocets and OxyContin — painkillers based on the opioid oxycodone — young users moved on to heroin when they realized it was a cheaper version of the same thing.
With representatives of seven county police departments, Piro and Higgins formed the initial HEAT task force and began educating themselves on the problem and what other communities were doing about it, notably in Pennsylvania, while trying to help the individual addicts who came through their doors.
A probationer meeting with Higgins would finally admit to needing help, followed by hours on the phone to treatment centers trying to find that help.
“On one occasion a kid left and never came back, he went straight to the morgue basically, after six hours in Mike’s office,” Piro said.
Increasingly frustrated with the lack of resources, insurance company red tape and other obstacles, the two looked elsewhere. From a $400,000 line item in the state budget, the program has since received funding of half a million dollars each year through the state Bureau of Substance Abuse Services. About $20,000 goes into the educational effort, bringing in speakers, printing pamphlets and other outreach efforts. The balance provides treatment, paying for the stays of the people Piro and Higgins refer into treatment programs.
Today, the problem has not gone away. If anything, it has worsened. The two say the problem has grown again, apparently fueled by the availability of 30-milligram Percocets in the past two years and capped by the often lethal combination of heroin and painkillers fentanyl or ketamine.
That phenomenon has been seen in the past couple of months, and they attribute to it a recent surge in overdoses.
Woburn Police Chief Robert Ferullo Jr. — also scheduled to participate in Monday’s conference — said his department has documented three overdose deaths and seven survived overdoses this year.
Greenfield police, meanwhile, recorded eight opioid overdoses in the first two weeks of this year, including one fatality. Woburn’s census-estimated population is a little more than double that of Greenfield.
Piro and Higgins are not discouraged by the apparently endless problem, and are proud that the HEAT program has helped approximately 2,000 people get into treatment.
Congressman James McGovern of Worcester and state Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, are among those scheduled to speak Monday, with top state court officials and the director of the state Bureau of Substance Abuse Services.
Rosenberg on Tuesday identified hope for a solution in recent efforts at the state and local levels, including the creation last month of a special Senate committee to examine drug abuse and treatment availability and the $40,000 approved by the House and Senate last week to fund a coordinator for the Opioid Education and Awareness Task Force.
That money is included in a supplemental budget pending the governor’s approval.
“This is a first direct effort that I’m aware of in the state to try to support a community-based/law enforcement community effort to identify strategies to try to reduce and eventually eliminate this growing epidemic,” said Rosenberg, who is expected to become the Senate’s next president.
“The point of the conference, and the point of the Senate special committee and the point of having a local coordinator to work on strategies is so that we can win in this battle and we shouldn’t give up before we’ve put our full effort behind addressing the problem,” he said.