Since I began to discuss publicly the heroin and OxyContin epidemic, I have been stopped in supermarkets, at basketball games and community events. In these brief, private moments, average citizens have shared heartbreaking stories of young lives lost to addiction, of helpless parents searching for treatment beds that don't exist, families being torn apart by the pressure that drug addiction exerts, and of promising young lives lost too soon.
While this anecdotal evidence mounts, I, along with many others, have been searching for answers. What can we do to stem the tide? What can we do to reclaim our young people - to treat those who have already fallen victim to the horror of opiate addiction and to prevent others from going down that dead end road.
As I have met with community groups, concerned citizens, police officers, and national drug enforcement specialists, several key answers have emerged:
• This is not a problem that law enforcement can solve alone. As one police chief said, "We are not going to arrest ourselves out of this one."
• Treatment on demand is essential and simply does not exist in the Commonwealth today at the level required to meet this epidemic.
• Prevention, particularly through aggressive education efforts, is critical and requires committed people, funding, and information to succeed.
• The effects of this epidemic extend well beyond addicts and their friends and families. Many police chiefs are reporting an increase in robberies, house and car break-ins, and other such crimes. That trend will continue as the cost of these drugs increases and more addicts are forced to steal to support their habit.
There is one key component missing that is needed to direct the limited resources of our law enforcement, substance abuse, and prevention agencies: DATA…consistent and comprehensive information of the number of opiate-related fatal and non-fatal overdoses by community.
Without hard, real-time numbers of opiate-related drug overdoses, we will end up spending and wasting more money and time in our fight to stop this epidemic. That is why House Bill 3128, mandating that hospitals report suspected overdoses within 24 hours of treatment, is so essential to our efforts to combat opiate abuse.
Currently, law enforcement agencies learn about fatal and non-fatal overdoses in a piecemeal, haphazard fashion usually months after they have occurred. Sometimes we are notified by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Sometimes local police or the medical examiner's office will inform us of overdoses. The bottom line is that this information does not serve us as well as real-time, consistent, and comprehensive reporting required by this legislation would.
Patients receiving treatment will have their anonymity protected.
The information that is needed and which will be most useful is the number of fatal and non-fatal opiate related overdoses occurring in each community.
With that information law enforcement could allocate its limited resources to areas that are experiencing high overdose numbers in order to get the drug traffickers off the streets. For example, over the holidays there were two overdoses in a seaside North Shore community in a short period of time. Had my office been aware of that, the Drug Task Force could have aided the police in that community in investigating drug activity there in an effort to find and arrest the dealers. As it happened, we found out in March, much too late to do anything significant.
Another issue that is stifling our efforts to combat this problem is denial. Denial is a barrier to finding solutions. There are communities that still do not want to acknowledge that heroin and OxyContin abuse have crossed their borders. I can tell you that every one of the 34 cities and towns in Essex County has had at least one opiate-related incident occur in the last year. There is still a strong inclination among some communities to refuse to acknowledge it, or simply not to believe it. I believe that this denial will wither in the face of the real-time numbers required by this bill.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly - until we can document accurately the number of lives lost to these drugs, we will not succeed in securing adequate funds from our state and federal government for treatment and prevention programs. Certainly, as any district attorney will say - without sufficient evidence, the case is lost.
Until and unless we have a consistent and comprehensive data stream which will tell the true story of the havoc wreaked by heroin and OxyContin in this state, this epidemic will continue to take lives.