Editorial: As heroin use balloons in Valley, need to treat addiction intensifies

Last modified: Friday, February 28, 2014

On Monday, an overflow crowd of between 300 and 400 people attended a conference at Greenfield Community College to talk about heroin and the rapidly escalating problem it has become in western Massachusetts.

In the past, heroin has been regarded as a big-city problem. But thanks in part to an ample supply of cheap heroin, use of the drug is surging in rural areas, especially among those already addicted to prescription painkillers that are harder to get, and more expensive.

The conference — which was attended by law enforcement personnel, social service and health professionals, legislators, educators, family members affected by substance abuse and officials from other Massachusetts communities that have been grappling with the same problem in recent years — underscored heroin’s growing impact in our area.

According to the Massachusetts State Police, there were 19 suspected heroin overdoses in Franklin and Hampshire counties since Nov. 1. By comparison, 16 people died from all varieties of overdoses in 2011, the last year for which state data is available.

At Monday’s conference, Judge Wiliam Mazanec, first justice of Greenfield District Court, said many of those showing up in courtrooms these days for heroin-related offenses are still in their teens and come from a range of backgrounds. “It’s happening to wealthy families, to poor families. It doesn’t know any boundaries,” he said.

The picture in our area mirrors what is happening elsewhere.

In January, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin devoted his entire State of the State address to the quick, lethal growth in heroin use in his state. Shumlin said heroin use increased 770 percent since 2000 in Vermont. Calling it a “full-blown crisis,” Shumlin said Vermont needs to start thinking about addiction as a chronic disease, not a problem dealt with only by making arrests and locking people up.

The conference at GCC was sponsored by the Opioid Education and Awareness Task Force, an ad hoc coalition of regional agencies, social service professionals and government officials. Among those who have been involved in launching the task force are Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan, Franklin Probate and Family Court Register John Merrigan and Franklin County Sheriff Christopher Donelan.

State Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, has worked to secure $40,000 in the state budget to pay a task force administrator, whose duties will include collecting and updating data about the nature and extent of the heroin and prescription pill problem in the region.

That’s an essential step. Without up-to-date numbers and facts, the task force will be hampered in its efforts to target effective policies.

State Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, spoke at the conference on the need for more funding for treatment programs and beds. “We all need to make this a budget priority this year,” he said.

He’s right, though as Rosenberg knows only too well, solutions like treatment programs, specialized police training, social service outreach and public education all take money. In these days of chronically tight budgets, there will always be competing demands for government funds.

The task force faces a formidable job in the coming months, and we hope it gets the resources it needs. The group was started by people who live and work in this area and see the harm drug abuse causes.

They share a belief that addiction is a multi-pronged disease that slogans and wishful thinking won’t cure.

And they understand that there is no single, simple solution.

Monday’s conference at GCC succeeded in shedding light on heroin’s presence. Now it’s on to the harder work of lessening its deadly impact.


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