It is well know that there is a major problem with opioid use and abuse in the New England area and specifically in Essex County. Governor Deval Patrick, earlier this year, declared the opiate problem a “public health epidemic” and committed $20 million additional dollars to prevention services. Some of this money has been used to provide Narcan to all first responders, usually police, firefighters and ambulance services.
Narcan is a proven effective antidote to an opiate overdose and has already been credited with saving over 100 lives in the Commonwealth. However, this does not address the prevention of opiate use in the first place, among those who do not use the drugs for pain relief.
Charlie Baker, our new Governor-elect has declared he wants to make addressing the opiate addiction crisis in the Commonwealth a focus of the first 6 months of his administration. The precipitant to this, in addition to the persistent headlines, appears to be a recent football injury to his college age son. AJ Baker, a football player at Union College broke his arm and was prescribed Percocets, an effective but addictive painkiller, as treatment for the injury. This appeared to alarm the Governor-to-be who took the opportunity to stake a claim to addressing the ongoing problem with prescription opiates.
The prescription opiate problem and the heroin problem in the New England area go hand in hand. Most people who become addicted to heroin begin their addiction through the use of prescription opiates such as Vicodin, Oxycontin or Percocet. Many of these are legitimate prescriptions for medical needs that are not well-managed by the prescribers. It is not uncommon for well-meaning physicians to convince patients to accept these prescriptions before checking if they are actually necessary. They are so concerned with alleviating their patients’ pain that they overlook the substantial risks inherent with these drugs. More often than not, the doctors do not explain the addictive qualities of the drugs or the withdrawal symptoms expected as the patient attempts to stop using them when they are no longer needed. This all contributes to continued use of the medicines beyond the actual period of need.
The other entry to opiate use is within the drug using community. People who are using other drugs such as marijuana, alcohol or cocaine, are more prone to try a pill that may be offered by an acquaintance. Either way, the pills are expensive and at some point, a cheaper alternative is presented. Heroin is cheap, readily available and often is presented as a low-cost alternative with minimal risks (as long as you only snort it). No one who uses a needle to inject heroin ever starts out that way. In fact, most IV drug users will tell you that they thought they would never use a needle. Once someone begins injecting a drug, they are at risk for many blood born illnesses such as Hepatitis and HIV increasing the risk factors exponentially.
Baker brings impressive potential to the problem. He is a former health care system executive and former Secretary of Health and Human Services. He plans to work with two other politicians who have already staked a claim to working on addiction issues. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh has not made it a secret that he is an addict in recovery and AFL-CIO President Steven Tolman has been a consistent advocate for addiction treatment services. Let’s hope they can lead a successful effort to address this problem.