Veronica Brown '17
Assistant News Editor
Massachusetts has seen a dramatic rise in opioid abuse and overdose in the past decade. Opioids include illegal opiates such as heroin as well as commonly abused prescription drugs including Vicodin and OxyContin.
According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, 978 people in Massachusetts died from an unintentional opioid overdose in 2013, the most recent year for which complete statistics are available. This represented a 46 percent increase from 2012.
Hampshire County, which includes Northampton and Amherst, has 28 deaths on record from opioid overdose in 2013, up almost 300 percent from the average from the previous four years. In a Jan. 14 press release, Northampton mayor David Narkewicz said, “The opioid epidemic is a full-blown public health crisis that cuts across geographic, social, racial and economic boundaries.”
In March 2014, Governor Deval Patrick declared opioid abuse a state public health emergency. He dedicated $20 million to “increase prevention, treatment and recovery” and organized the Opioid Task Force to work with the Department of Public Health, intended to formulate recommendations for how the state can best use its resources to solve the health crisis.
The task force determined increased education, centralized treatment resources and expanded recovery services were needed. They then recommended how to allocate the state’s $20 million.
The State Department of Public Health Bureau of Substance Abuse gave $550,000 to Northampton in the form of a grant intended to create the Hampshire Opioid Abuse Prevention Collaborative. Franklin County organized a similar effort last spring. Northampton’s first step will be to hire a full-time coordinator to assess the extent of the area’s opioid problem.
On Feb. 19, Governor Charlie Baker unveiled a new plan to combat opioid abuse throughout the state. Shortly after winning the Nov. 2014 election, Baker named opioid abuse one of his top priorities to address during his time in office.
“I was really surprised how many people told me stories related to opioid addiction,” he said during his time on the campaign trail.
In addition to providing more comprehensive data on the effects of opioid abuse in Massachusetts, the first step in Baker’s initiative will be to establish a 16-member working group devoted to the problem. He has also worked with insurers, such as Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, to address the rampant over-prescription of potentially addictive painkillers.
Massachusetts is already one of the few states in the country that allows Naloxone, trade name Narcan, to be distributed through take-home kits to civilians who know opioid users. Narcan is an opioid antagonist that can save a person who overdosed. Although the drug is not harmful if accidentally given to someone not overdosing, most states only allow physicians or emergency responders to administer the drug. From July to December of 2014, civilian possession allowed Massachusetts to see over 3,000 Narcan rescues, six times the average when distribution is limited to emergency responders.
It is now well established that opioid abuse is a serious problem for the state that shows no sign of slowing down without extensive intervention. The solution remains far from clear-cut; however, lawmakers will have to continue to work with other community members in search of an answer.