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Communities team up to tackle opiate abuse

Just months after they were awarded state grants to get started, Medford, Revere, Lynn, Lowell, and Gloucester officials are gearing up to publicize proposed regional strategies for fighting what many are calling an “opiate epidemic” north of Boston.

Over the last decade, abuse of opioids — such as heroin and prescription drugs like oxycodone — has risen throughout the state. The five communities hope to get public input about the ideas they have for guiding regional coalitions charged with addressing the abuse, which takes more lives each year than car accidents.

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The communities were awarded $100,000 state grants in June to create strategies for regional coalitions to use. The strategies must be completed by the end of April, with the work beginning by July 1.

The coalitions include 21 cities and towns north of Boston. Medford is working with Malden, Melrose, Wakefield, Stoneham, and Reading; Revere with Chelsea, Winthrop, and Saugus; Lynn with Salem and Peabody; Gloucester with Beverly and Danvers; Lowell with Billerica, Chelmsford, Dracut, and Tewksbury.

The coalitions are part of a $1.3 million statewide plan by the Department of Public Health known as the Massachusetts Opioid Abuse Prevention Collaborative Program. The program’s goals are to help create local policy to help prevent opioid overdoses, keep people alive if they do overdose, and to educate prescribers on safe prescription practices and patients on safe storage and disposal of their medications.

State health officials say opioid overdoses in 2009 killed 627 people in Massachusetts, compared with 374 motor vehicle-related deaths. In 2010, opioids were the leading cause of poisoning death in the state, with 555 of 839 of the overdoses traced to opiate drugs, according to the state.

In Gloucester, where the average annual number of fatal and nonfatal overdoses between 2008 and 2010 was 28, the Healthy Gloucester Collaborative is creating a program to fight opiate abuse. Even before the program began, the city’s police and fire departments were equipped with Narcan, a nasal spray that counteracts opiate overdoses. Joan Whitney, director of the Healthy Gloucester Collaborative, said more than 60 overdoses had been reversed by the use of Narcan by Gloucester police and firefighters in recent years.

‘Your life will never be your own if you travel this path. Yes, you can get clean, but addiction will be at your door forever.’

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Whitney praised the assessment period of the grant, which she said would allow area cities and towns to create permanent policies. “We’re looking for sustainable change, not something that’s here today and gone tomorrow,” said Whitney, who said the city of Beverly has agreed to add a medications drop box at its police station next year.

In addition, the Healthy Gloucester Collaborative will host a community forum on prescription misuse and the opioid epidemic next Wednesday from 5 to 7 p.m. at Cruiseport Gloucester.

Revere Cares, which is funded by Massachusetts General Hospital and state grants, is currently overseeing the assessment stage in Revere, Chelsea, Winthrop, and Saugus. Katie Sugarman, an assistant director at Revere Cares, said the organization is conducting focus groups and interviews and also gathering statistics about overdose rates and admissions to local hospital emergency departments and substance abuse treatment facilities.

Linda Vecchia of Winthrop believes educating elementary school children should be a key component of the coalition’s policy. “The main thing is prevention,” she said. “Kids have to know that they can’t try the drugs of today because they’re too powerful. Today there’s too much out there and it’s too easy for them to get it.”

Vecchia has seen how opiates can change a family. Her daughter, who is now 26, overdosed 10 times, and was in and out of 10 different rehab and detox centers before getting clean. “Your life will never be your own if you travel this path. Yes, you can get clean, but addiction will be at your door forever,” she said.

No one knows how many people abuse opioids or are hooked on heroin, but state statistics show that the 21 coalition communities north of Boston had a combined average of 698 overdoses between 2008 and 2010.

Gary Langis, a longtime substance abuse counselor serving as a consultant for the Lynn and Lowell coalitions, also said educating schholchildren is a big part of deterrence.

“I think young kids should know. There’s a preconceived notion that medications are OK because they’re prescribed by doctors. Education will break down those myths,” said Langis, who also expects the Lynn and Lowell coalitions to conduct a social media campaign about the dangers of opiates, with the goal of reducing drug use and overdoses.

Since last summer, when the grant was awarded, there has been more consciousness about opiates and overdoses in Saugus. The town averaged 32 opioid overdoses a year between 2008 and 2010, and the fire department began using Narcan in August. Fire Chief Don McQuaid said at least 12 opiate-related overdoses have been reversed in the last three months in Saugus after firefighters administered the treatment.

He advised residents to discard unwanted old prescriptions at the police station. “It’s important to get rid of the stuff. If you don’t need it any more, get it out of your house,” he said.

Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at srosenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @WriteRosenberg.
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