DRUG WARS: Heroin and opioid addiction is on the rise

Tom Reily stands before Governor Charlie Baker, Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito and a crowd of hundreds and announces that he is two-and-half-years sober. The crowd responds with a fierce applause and in return Reily smiles.

“I was a heroin addict,” Reily, a Boston College graduate, says during the final public hearing of Governor Baker’s opioid abuse task force.

Reily grips the podium and speaks slowly about his recovery process. My mother drained her bank account to help get me cured, he says. My insurance didn’t cover the inpatient detox centers and programs I needed at the time, he continues. “If you ask enough people… you can actually get better,” he emotes.

Reily isn’t alone in his frustration. One recovering opiate addict, Ralph, says before the public hearing that it took him three attempts to get clean. He relapsed the first two tries because he was denied a bed at several inpatient detox centers. He finally found a bed at the Hope House in Boston.

The public hearing April 2 on the opioid crisis in Massachusetts is the last of four. Governor Baker conducted four listening sessions throughout the Commonwealth so that he and his committee can listen to first-hand accounts on the epidemic. He also intends to brainstorm ways to remedy it. Former Governor Deval Patrick declared a public health emergency in May 2014 to combat opiate abuse throughout the state. Governor Baker is continuing Patrick’s statewide initiative to combat the problem.

There isn’t statewide data on the exact number of opioid addicts—that information is nearly impossible to know. Though the state does know that opioid-related deaths in Massachusetts have risen substantially. They jumped nearly 50 percent in 2013, from 668 to 978 people.To put that in context, that means opioids have now killed more people than car accidents (371 people in 2012) or guns (233 in 2013), according to the Mass. Department of Public Health. Massachusetts state police are reporting more than 200 suspected opioid overdose deaths in the first three months of this year alone.

State Senator for the Worcester and Middlesex district, Jennifer Flanagan, says she receives countless of family phone calls each day describing the epidemic firsthand.

“Senator, I’m tired,” callers would say, “it’s been eight years.”

Opioids, namely heroin, were once mainly a problem for teens living in impoverished neighborhoods in large cities. Now, on a national scale, today’s opioid addict can be anyone from anywhere. No city or person is exempt, says Senator Flanagan.

The hike in opioid overdoses is being attributed to the over-prescription of painkillers. We are fighting a new world of drugs, says Senator Flanagan, and they are legal. Typically, when prescribed opioids become too expensive an addiction, people move on to heroin, a cheaper alternative that provides nearly the same effect.

The state of Massachusetts appears to be combating the epidemic on two fronts: prevention and treatment. Senator Flanagan says the committee she heads—the Special Senate Committee on Opioid Addiction Prevention, Treatment and Recovery Options—is working to pass a measure that would have the Prescription Monetary Program (PMP) update in real-time. The PMP is a secure website that supports safe prescribing and dispensing. Senator Flanagan reasons that if the state can document this information in real-time, doctors can know immediately when to stop prescribing painkillers.

A suggestion mentioned at the State House public hearing was for earlier education on opioids. The suggestion was made by Barbara O’Brien, a 16-year-old girl whose brother is an opioid addict.

“I use to be embarrassed by my brother,” O’Brien says.

She says it was because she didn’t understand what it meant to be an addict. The only thing she learned about addiction in school was through the D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program, which didn’t speak much about addiction resolutions but focused on prevention. O’Brien wishes she and her classmates knew about the severity of the disease so that she could have spoken about her brother comfortably and without judgement.

Senator Flanagan says teaching addiction earlier in schools would help combat the stigma associated with it. Some people still refuse to acknowledge addiction as a disease, the state senator says. Education could help dismantle society’s preconceived notions and encourage better treatment, she continues.

“I didn’t really understand (addiction) myself,” says Carol Anderson, a mother of a recovering addict.

Her 18-year-old son, Jack, is six months sober now. He started taking oxycodone when he was 17 years old. Jack wasn’t prescribed oxycodone, Anderson says, but quite frankly it isn’t a hard drug to find—it’s a fairly popular prescribed opioid. Jack sought his mother’s help before experimenting with other opioids. Anderson describes her son’s recovery as lucky but also described Jack’s addiction as “now a lifetime” condition.

To say the road to recovery was rough would be just an understatement. Anderson says she couldn’t understand why he “just couldn’t stop” at first. Slowly, she realized her son had lost the ability to make rational decisions.

“Addicts are just wired differently to begin with,” she says.

Once she realized the severity of her son’s disease, she invested everything she could to make sure her son got better. It wasn’t cheap, she says. Her insurance didn’t cover most of his treatment. Her insurance plan paid for two days, but what addict could get better in two days?

Anderson is happy to hear that former Governor Deval Patrick signed a bill into law last year requiring insurers to pay up to 14 days in an inpatient detox center. It’s a good first step, says Anderson, but it’s definitely not long enough to get better. Especially for those who are seeking recovery and do not have advocates by their side. My son has me, she says, but not all addicts are so lucky, so inpatient care is essential to recovery for some.

For this reason, she and a group of parents of addicts or friends of addicts have started an organization to help addicts who have no one and who have taken to the streets as a result. The group, Hand Delivered Hope, meets the last Sunday of every month and supplies food, clothing and toiletries to homeless addicts throughout Boston. At least one person in the group is trained to use NARCAN, a prescription drug that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose. Hand Delivered Hope started just a couple of months ago but already has about 60 people coming every Sunday.

And hundreds of people donate, Anderson says.

Anderson reasons that the large involvement in Hand Delivered Hope has a lot to do with the number of people affected by the opioid epidemic. Chances are if you aren’t addicted yourself, you know someone who is, she says.

The city of Boston just opened a new home for addiction programs; an old city building on River Street in Mattapan will provide 45 beds to drug addicts. About 45 addicts will receive treatment for up to a month in the city’s Transitions Program. A month is better than 14 days at an inpatient detox center, but what happens once the month is up? The thought is terrifying to mothers like Anderson.

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