For the six people from this region who lost their lives to drugs in the 24-day period after Christmas, their battle with addiction is over, but officials here are far from ready to turn the streets over to the drug dealers, so the war goes on.
In recent weeks, more deaths in the region have been attributed to drug overdoses, even while state and local officials from both sides of the border gather to try to develop a way to stop the carnage.
“Where do you start to attack this problem? I don’t know the answer to that,” said Amesbury police Lt. Bill Scholtz. “But I do know it’s not all about law enforcement. We also need to try to get people help, and there needs to be education.”
Agreeing with Scholtz are veteran law enforcement professionals from the region, including one who’s been fighting this battle for 20 years.
“We need a three-prong approach: education, enforcement and rehabilitation,” said Lt. John Encarnacao, commander of the N.H. State Police Narcotics and Investigations Unit. “We’ve partnered with educators and rehab, and we do what we can there. We can’t eliminate the drug problem completely, that’s unrealistic. But we can make a difference. We can cut it in half, but we need to work together.”
According to state Sen. Kathleen O’Connor Ives, D-Newburyport, due to the pressing need to address this issue of drug abuse in her district, she requested to become a member of the Senate’s Special Committee on Opiate Addiction, Treatment and Prevention this session.
Along with state Rep. Diana Dizoglio, D-Methuen, O’Connor Ives is sponsoring a bill that would address substance abuse education in public schools. The bill has bipartisan support, with state Sen. Bruce Tarr of Gloucester, the Senate Republican leader, also listed as a sponsor.
According to the text of the legislation, the bill would require the departments of Elementary and Secondary Education to coordinate with the Department of Public Health and a to-be-formed substance abuse advisory committee to establish “a model curriculum designed for the purpose of substance abuse and addiction prevention.”
The course work would be required to address “tobacco, alcohol, opiate and prescription drug diversion and abuse and other substance use and abuse prevention, conflict resolution, healthy coping behavior, student and community mental health resources and peer leadership.”
According to O’Connor Ives, the curriculum would be taught in grades 4 through 12 and the state would fully fund related costs. A due date of June 30 is planned.
It was O’Connor Ives’ involvement with two groups in her communities, the Merrimack Valley Substance Abuse Task Force in Methuen and the Haverhill Overdose Prevention Education Task Force, that led her to sponsor the bill.
“When I’d attend these task force meetings or when I’d meet with parents, everyone was interested in (drug prevention) education,” O’Connor Ives said. “In this new bill, the departments would be required to consider best practices implemented in other states as they develop the curriculum.”
The education model would address the continuum of risky times youth face as they mature.
“There’s no such thing as safe experimentation with drugs and there are different times and different reasons when students might be exposed to addiction and substance abuse,” she said. “There’s the young athlete who could be exposed to prescription drug addiction (through pain medication) following an injury because he or she wants to perform well. Or it could be peer pressure.”
In local communities, the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program has also been used. In Seabrook, for example, school resource officer Jim Deshaies has worked with students for years through DARE, encouraging children to make good choices and lead healthy lives. The rate of drug arrests and deaths in Seabrook, however, indicates that more may be needed.
Merrimac family physician Michael Guidi has researched the issue and said he found that well-organized community anti-drug task forces provide good resources for parents and others. Guidi added that teaching parents ways to de-stress their lives also appears to be beneficial. Children who grow up in positive, stress-reduced atmospheres tend to refrain from abusing drugs, Guidi has found.
Newburyport city Marshal Thomas Howard believes more prevention support opportunities are needed for youth after they leave high school. Colleges need to recognize that the risk of drug abuse among their students is a pervasive part of society, he said. Howard urged post-secondary institutions not to wait for problems to develop, but to be proactive and have ongoing support systems for students in place.
In an effort to save more lives, Newburyport officers are now trained to administer the anti-overdose drug Narcan, which is present in every cruiser, according to Howard. Amesbury officers are also being trained to carry it. Salisbury police Chief Thomas Fowler said his department recently applied for a grant that requests funding for Narcan training, as well as for enforcement and education.
Once available only to ambulance and hospital personnel, Narcan can bring an unconscious overdose victim back from the threshold of death in a matter of seconds.
Howard said a couple of weeks ago one of his officers saved an overdose victim by administering Narcan. The victory was satisfying, he said, but more is needed.
”Everything we’re doing now is reactive to the problem,” he said. “We need to be proactive with this problem or we’ll never get ahead of it.”
One proactive measure Newburyport is taking, Howard said, is to keep track of overdoses, enabling officers to reach out and get them help before they become a statistic.
”We’re going to try to identify those who have addictions before they become criminals,” Howard said. “We’re trying to get them into treatment before they have to turn to dealing drugs or stealing to support their habits.”
For those arrested on drug-related, non-violent crimes, the Essex County District Attorney’s office has a drug diversion program that defendants can enter. Run by professionals with expertise in treating drug addiction, the program is structured and demanding, according to spokeswoman Carrie Kimball Monahan.
”(Defendants) are offered the program and it is their choice to participate,” Kimball Monahan said. “If they successfully complete the program, the charges against them are dropped. If they choose to participate, we refer them to an agency that evaluates them and determines an appropriate treatment plan. (The agency) reports to us as offenders progress and whether they have successfully completed, have failed or left (the program).”
In 2014, 72 defendants entered the program, she said, 56.25 percent successfully completed it, 18.75 percent left it, 18.75 percent unsuccessfully completed it, and 6.25 percent reoffended.
Scholtz said the region’s law enforcement community is working together to fight the substance abuse battle. All police departments share information and take part in joint investigations and arrests.
And O’Connor Ives said, a provision in a piece of legislation passed last year strengthened the penalties for drug-dealing convictions.
“The bill we passed expanded penalties for convicted drug dealers to 20 to 30 years in prison,” O’Connor Ives said. “People dealing these drugs are killing people. They’re dealing in death; there has to be a stiff penalty.”
Every law enforcement professional interviewed said drug dealers respect no boundaries. A big supplier in Lawrence, Lynn or Boston can impact crime anywhere in New England, they agreed, and cooperation between states, cities and towns and federal agencies is common, and required, if the fight to stop the dying is going to succeed.
The new designation for New Hampshire’s Rockingham County as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) will help law enforcement work together even more, according to Atkinson, N.H., police Chief Albert Brackett, who wrote the federal grant that earned the county the distinction in September. Essex County has had the designation for years.
The degree of drug use in his small, rural, borderline community led Brackett to pursue the HIDTA designation.
”We had nine heroin overdoses and two fatalities in Atkinson,” Bracket said. “That’s significant in a town this size.”
Although in its formative stages, Brackett said HIDTA can give local police an edge in the war on drugs.
”The HIDTA designation allows us to focus resources on major drug traffickers who are affecting Rockingham County,” Brackett said. “It will help us see the big picture tracing who the major traffickers are supplying drugs here, something that didn’t happen before. It can earmark money for police departments in the 37 cities and town in the country who are assigned to this HIDTA group.”
The designation allows law enforcement to utilize the state and federal databases, Bracket said, and there can be money for equipment, enforcement, and interdiction.
Scholtz said while Essex County HIDTA allows some financial help, there’s an important education component to HIDTA communities as well.
”The biggest thing is the tracking,” Scholtz said. “Everything we do with drug-related law enforcement is sent to HIDTA New England and tracked.”
The cost of detoxification and rehabilitation services can be as much of an obstacle to helping victims get clean as is finding available treatment. But under the federal Affordable Care Act, there is some good news for those seeking help for themselves or loved ones.
”Mental health and substance abuse care are considered vital services that must be provided by every health insurance plan since the Affordable Care Act became law,” said Amesbury insurance broker Don Beaulieu. “Where it gets complicated is that each plan has its deductibles, co-payments and shared cost structure, and substance abuse coverage is subject to those considerations.”
Beaulieu said the Affordable Care Act requires all citizens to have insurance, but the cost of coverage can be a concern. To lower insurance premiums, some opt for high deductibles, co-pays or expense cost sharing, he said. Those choosing high deductible plans to lower costs will find that amount applicable to the mental health, substance abuse aspect when used, he said.
It was recently announced that private health insurers across Massachusetts will begin to include coverage for methadone treatment for recovering opiate addicts as of this summer. Deductibles and co-payments may apply depending on the nature of the insurance plan, but recovery experts and insurers are applauding the move as another tool in the fight.
Last year the Legislature passed a major substance abuse bill that improved access to treatment and recovery services in the state. O’Connor Ives said the new law requires insurers to cover up to 14 days in an in-patient treatment facility. It also expands the scope of drug and alcohol abuse counselors covered by insurance, some of whom weren’t previously included.
The state legislation also strengthens oversight provision in the state’s prescription monitoring program, making it more difficult to obtain prescription opiates for resale or illicit use. It also increased funding for drug abuse prevention programs.
With new access the hope is there will be more beds available in long-term rehab facilities, for which there is a real need.
”There are usually detox beds that can be found, but finding a bed for a person for follow-up, long-term rehabilitation and treatment can be very difficult,” O’Connor Ives said.
Those addicted are vulnerable after detoxification, experts say, and more beds are needed for the follow-up care and behavior modification that gives recovering addicts the ability to resist the yearning for drugs that can be with them for the rest of their lives.
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