Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and other top state officials have made clear opiate addiction is not a matter of crime and punishment but rather one of public health.
It is a welcome and hopeful change in strategy as the state struggles to cope with a heroin crisis that claimed more than 1,000 lives from opioid overdoses in 2014.
“The solution to eradicating opioids is not a one-size-fits-all approach and will require all of us to rethink the way we treat addiction,” Baker said at a press conference Monday in which his opioid task force issued recommendations on dealing with the crisis.
“Opioid abuse is stealing the livelihood of our children, our siblings, parents, relatives and friends one person at a time,” he said.
The task force’s proposals focus on prevention, education, intervention, treatment and recovery. The price tag for the initiatives would be about $35 million. It would be money well spent.
The 18-member task force included physicians, nurses, addiction experts, union officials and members of law enforcement.
Attorney General Maura Healey said state and local authorities need to reframe their focus to approach opiate addiction as an illness.
“We are not going to arrest or incarcerate our way out of this,” Healey said. “This is a public health crisis, and we must address it as such.”
Locking up addicts fails to address the factors that led them to heroin and opiate abuse in the first place. While jail time may get addicts clean initially, many soon begin to abuse drugs once again.
The task force recommended more money for substance abuse treatment and prevention programs. It also called for transferring female inmates committed for opioid abuse from prisons to state-run treatment centers, increasing the number of beds for addicted inmates seeking treatment, and funding a stockpile of medications to treat addicted inmates in correctional facilities.
Joanne Peterson, founder of the Learn to Cope support group, said the task force’s report represents a dramatic shift in the state’s response to the ongoing epidemic.
“This is a huge response that we have been waiting years for,” she told Statehouse reporter Christian M. Wade. “We’re looking forward to seeing these recommendations come into play.”
The task force wants heightened monitoring of prescriptions and required training for doctors in safe prescribing practices. It wants addiction specialists appointed to state boards that oversee doctors, nurses, physician assistants and dentists.
While tighter control over prescription opiates can be helpful, we must be sure that those who truly need these powerful pain killers are not denied their medication.
The Legislature seems ready to act to implement many of these recommendations. Both Senate President Stanley Rosenberg and House Speaker Robert DeLeo have identified the opiate crisis as a major concern. Already there have been bills filed to increase prison terms for traffickers, and to provide more money for prevention and treatment.
Prison terms are appropriate for traffickers who spread this poison across our cities and towns. But locking up low-level users clearly has done nothing to resolve the heroin crisis. Those who are enslaved by these powerful, life-destroying drugs need help to break the cycle of addiction, not punishment.
Phil Lahey, a former Methuen city councilor, knows the cost of addiction. Lahey’s daughter, Colleen, beat a 10-year heroin addiction and has been clean for more than six years. Lahey now oversees the Merrimack Valley Prevention and Substance Abuse Project.
“Everybody who’s involved with this epidemic knows what needs to be done — we know there’s a shortage of treatment, we know there’s a shortage of funds for treatment, education and prevention,” he told Wade. “Now, we have to work on solutions. We need to stop talking and start acting.”
The recommendations from Baker’s task force are a good place to start.