By Dave Eisenstadter
Town officials, school leaders, police, local politicians, the county district attorney’s office, and leaders of informal neighborhood groups all came together Tuesday to begin tackling what all agreed was the biggest problem facing Dedham: drugs.
A little over 30 people, including State Sen. Michael Rush, D-West Roxbury, State Rep. Paul McMurtry, D-Dedham, and Norfolk County District Attorney Michael Morrissey, attended the first meeting of Dedham’s Drug Task Force Tuesday at the Dedham Town Hall.
Representatives from law enforcement, the medical community and prosecution spoke first.
“This is a problem that doesn’t have any boundaries,” Dedham Detective Kevin Mahoney said at the meeting. “It is a problem that has crossed enough lines that people finally want to address it.”
Mahoney, one of the detectives that deals with the majority of drug cases in Dedham, said that police dealt with 82 drug overdoses in Dedham during the calendar years of 2011 and 2012. Only a few of those resulted in deaths, but the number of drug incidents has been increasing, he said.
The primary reason has been the dizzying rise in abuse of prescription medicine, including Oxycontin and Percocet, Mahoney said. As a prescription habit becomes more expensive to maintain, people switch to the much cheaper heroin. As a result, overdose deaths from all drugs now outnumber car crash deaths in Massachusetts, he said.
The way physicians have been trained has contributed to the rise, Dr. Michael Marciello of Dedham Medical Associates said at the meeting.
“I’m the problem; I’m the one who prescribes the medication,” Marciello said.
The focus of physician training had been to aggressively treat pain by prescribing medication, trusting that patients would not abuse it, he said.
That has not been the reality, and the medical community is starting to change. Paper prescription pads, which had been subject to alteration or forgery, are being replaced by electronic prescriptions and doctors are becoming more wary about prescribing dangerously addictive medication, Marciello said.
“We haven’t figured out who will do well with meds and who will not,” Marciello said.
Marciello urged drug education to begin early so that younger people tempted by tobacco, alcohol and marijuana would not experiment with those substances, prescriptions, and other drugs, as well.
The District Attorney’s office has been using seized money and property from drug dealers to try to fight the problem, and drug convictions often have an education component to try to help a person fight their habit, Morrissey said.
There are also treatment programs, especially in the city of Quincy, some of which train people to use Narcan, a product that temporarily reverses the effects of drugs in the system and can save lives during an overdose.
However, drugs continue to be the main driving force behind crime in Norfolk County and beyond, said Jennifer Rowe, Assistant District Attorney for Norfolk County.
Selectmen Sarah MacDonald and Michael Butler, who organized the meeting, then asked what could be done at a local level to address drugs. As Butler moderated, MacDonald wrote ideas down on large pieces of paper.
Ron Brock, one of the founders of Dedham’s Manor Neighborhood Association, said Tuesday that he had been an addict and recovered through a 15-month stay at Teen Challenge in Brockton.
Addicts steal catalytic converters from cars and copper pipes from homes because they know they can get money for them from junkyards, Brock said. That would have to be addressed, he said.
Brock advocated for longer treatment programs, more accountability for drug companies out to make a profit and the doctors who prescribe the medication, and directed attention from prosecutors on drugs in the same way DUI’s were targeted.
Susan Fay, a health educator and Dedham resident, expressed concern about marijuana being legalized for medical use and thought that would add to the drug abuse problem.
Gail Kelley, nurse supervisor at Dedham High School, said the she and others recently started a School Health Advisory Commission. At a recent meeting, students came forward and talked about some of the issues they face as teens.
One effective step the schools took was having former NBA player Chris Herren speak about his struggles as a drug addict to the students, Kelley said.
Near the end of the two-hour meeting, Dedham parent and baseball coach Bill McCaig said having Herren speak was effective.
McCaig said he had struggled with addiction earlier in life and was recovering. Still, a doctor prescribed him pain medication after a knee surgery. He told the doctor he did not want the medication and that he would deal with the pain.
McCaig has had conversations about drugs with his children, a ninth grade girl and seventh grade boy, but also thinks he has an obligation to help other children he sees in trouble in the community.
One such instance took place with one of the children he coaches. He found him in a bad situation and told him to stop and told his mother what he had seen.
“I said, ‘Listen, I’m not being a rat; I’m not trying to say my kid is better than your kid,’” McCaig explained. “I will watch you kid, every kid.”
Closing up the gathering, MacDonald said she and Butler would report the contents of the discussion to the other selectmen at their meeting on Thursday. Selectmen will decide how to proceed and she would report back, she said.
“I’ll keep you all in the loop,” MacDonald said.
McCaig said he hoped to see many more people at the next meeting.