Drug use called epidemic in Mass.

OxyContin, heroin imperil public health Commission seeks help for addicts

By John R. Ellement
Globe Staff / November 6, 2009

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Abuse of OxyContin and heroin in Massachusetts has reached epidemic levels and must be attacked with the same fervor now being directed toward controlling the H1N1 flu virus, a special state commission said yesterday.

“The Commonwealth is in the midst of a serious and dangerous epidemic,’’ the panel, known formally as the Massachusetts OxyContin and Heroin Commission, said in a 71-page report released yesterday at the State House.

“The Commonwealth is losing men and women on its streets at a rate of 42 to 1, compared to what the state is losing in two wars overseas,’’ the panel said in its executive summary.

“Addiction is a medical disorder, and we have a public health epidemic on our hands that is larger than the flu pandemic.’’

The report compared the number of US service men and women from Massachusetts killed in Iraq or Afghanistan and the number who died from overdosing on one or both of the drugs between 2002 and 2007. During those years, 78 service people lost their lives while 3,265 died from drug-related causes, the panel found.

“We have a health crisis here,’’ said state Senator Steven Tolman, who chaired the commission. “None of them [addicts] want to be sick. You could have a son or a daughter who was brought up properly with all the morals and values, and, when they get hooked on the stuff, it doesn’t matter; it’s all out the window.’’

Berkshire District Attorney David F. Capeless, a commission member, said prosecutors believe that fighting substance abuse will reduce crime.

“The district attorneys realize that those who suffer from substance abuse need treatment,’’ Capeless said in a telephone interview. “But those who would propagate it in hopes of profiting from it, the dealers, need treatment of a different sort. They get incarceration.’’

The panel made 20 recommendations, including:

■Strengthen the existing prescription-monitoring program so that public health officials learn more quickly about patients collecting multiple prescriptions for the same drug and about doctors who appear to be writing more prescriptions than necessary.

■ Limit criminal sanctions against substance abusers who seek medical help for using illegal drugs and create a Good Samaritan law to shield anyone helping drug users in trouble get to a hospital before they die.

■Increase support for the three “recovery high schools,’’ where teenage substance abusers recover in a supportive educational, age-appropriate environment. The schools are in Boston, Beverly, and Springfield.

■Invest in substance abuse diversion programs that steer the addicted away from costly prisons into less expensive recovery programs.

“If the H1N1 virus killed 3,000 people in a five-year period in Massachusetts, the crisis would be center stage,’’ the commission found. “Because of the stigma surrounding substance abuse, this epidemic is left in the shadows.’’

Speaking for Governor Deval Patrick’s administration, Michael Botticelli of the Department of Public Health said the agency is planning to launch a pilot jail diversion program this year.

“What we are anticipating is that this would actually be cost effective for the Commonwealth,’’ he said. It costs $45,000 a year to incarcerate someone, he said. “The cost of treatment is dramatically lower.’’

In 2007, there were 105,552 admissions to DPH-funded substance abuse programs in Massachusetts, and the total spent during fiscal 2005 on substance abuse and addiction in the justice system was $1.084 billion, equal to 5.3 percent of the state budget, the commission said.

Capeless said he and other commission members know that increasing public support for noncriminal solutions to prescription and heroin drug abuse will not be easy.

“But it can happen to anybody, to any family, whether a big city, or rural, whatever economic status, region, or socioeconomic status,’’ he said. “We’ve heard from people from all walks of life.

“And unfortunately, they tell the same sad story,’’ Capeless said. “We are hoping to reach people before it happens.’’

John Ellement can be reached at