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N. Berkshire Community Meeting Focuses On Drug Abuse

Jim Levulis

The Northern Berkshire Community Coalitionhonored its members’ work at its annual meeting Tuesday in Williamstown, Massachusetts. But, talk also focused around an issue gaining regional and national attention.

Before a crowd of more than 100, State Senator Ben Downing of Pittsfield served as the fill-in keynote speaker, after State Senator Jennifer Flanagan of Leominster cancelled because of state budget hearings in Boston. Flanagan was chosen because she chairs the senate’s Special Committee on Drug Abuse and Treatment Options. Since February, the committee has toured prisons, hospitals and treatment centers across the state and held public hearings including one in North Adams. Downing, a Democrat from Pittsfield, says opioid and heroin abuse has only become a priority over the last two years, although the problem has been around for a lot longer.

“More people died while we had troops in Iraq here at home in Massachusetts from oxycotton and heroin overdoses than died on one of the most dangerous battlefields on the planet,” said Downing.

The senate committee’s findings run alongside a set of recommendations released Tuesday by a task force appointed by Governor Deval Patrick. In March, the governor declared a public health emergency after a spike in heroin and opioid overdoses. Berkshire County Sheriff Tom Bowler says he’s seen an increase in drug use among those incarcerated; meaning treatment organizations are likely experiencing the same trend.

“So I think it’s very, very important that we all come on a collaborative level and start working together with this team approach,” Bowler said. “We’re going to reorganize and do some of the treatment that we do with those that are incarcerated as well as work with other agencies and service networks for aftercare programs when they are released from our facility and back out into the community.”

The lack of action among lawmakers has forced law enforcement to become the main agencies handling substance abuse, according to Downing.

“Failing to have the right public policy in place to address these issues has left the problem too often at the doorstep of the district attorney, the sheriff, in our courthouses, in probation and in any number of different places where they have any number of other priorities they ought to be working on,” said Downing.

Downing highlighted legislation and budget items aimed at improving access to treatment and continued care, along with insurance reimbursements for patients and caregivers and outreach into schools. Youth education typically ends around the fifth grade. Bowler says that’s too soon.

“There needs to be a continuum of DARE or some type of drug/alcohol abuse education, bullying education in the middle school years and into the high school years because that’s where it’s most prevalent,” said Bowler.

The task force report called opioid addiction an epidemic in Massachusetts. Some 668 people died from overdoses in 2012, a 10 percent increase from the previous year.In January, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin dedicated his state of the state address to the issue. The Democrat said the number of death by heroin overdose nearly doubled in the past year. Following one of the task force recommendations, New England governors will meet June 17th at Brandies University to talk about curbing drug trade across state lines. Here’s Bowler.

“So-called criminal element coming up from New York City…it’s been happening right along,” Bowler explained. “Vermont may be seeing it over the last 10-15 years…we’ve been seeing it for the last 20 years.”

Downing says it’s about time the issue gets the attention it deserves, but reminds people not to stopping combating the reasons why people turn to drugs.

“The connection between substance abuse and lack of jobs, opportunity and lack of hope,” Downing explained. “That’s not to say that everyone if who wanted one had a job today that the problem would go away. It wouldn’t. But it would be less and we would have more resources to deal with it. So it’s important that we keep in mind while we tackle those multiple fronts that we continue to address the issues of economic opportunity and poverty.”

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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