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Region organizes to fight rise in opiate use

A number of communities south of Boston are picking up the pace in the fight against opiate abuse by launching antidrug coalitions, devising new police strategy, and attracting hundreds to forums on heroin abuse.

These efforts represent rising suburban concern about addiction triggered by the widespread illegal distribution of prescription painkillers such as OxyContin, Percocet, and Vicodin, which, ­police warn, often lead users to heroin, a cheaper alternative.

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The opiate epidemic has hit the Boston area, including ­Norfolk and Plymouth counties, especially hard, accord­ing to a Nov. 14 report by the ­Massachusetts Health Council, a nonprofit advocacy group of public and private organizations. It cited a federal study that reported that the Boston ­region’s emergency room visits involving heroin were 251 per 100,000 residents, nearly four times the national rate.

Contrary to the national pattern, more adults in Massachusetts entered substance abuse treatment for addiction to ­heroin than alcohol, 39,212 compared with 38,305,  the report stated, drawing on figures for 2011 from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s Bureau of Substance Abuse ­Services. The report said a similar pattern occurred in 2010: 40 percent of admissions were for heroin abuse treatment, while 39 percent were for treatment of alcoholism.

In Dedham, elected officials are organizing a drug task force that will ­include representatives from the town’s Health Department, Housing Authority, Emergency Services, police, schools, and seniors. Selectmen plan to hold a first meeting by the end of 2012.  

“We realized any solution is going to require a broad effort,” said Selectwoman Sarah ­MacDonald. “It’s much broader than just trying to enforce laws and manage the problem through the police and courts. Right now, we’re trying to get everyone in the same place.”

On Wednesday, a group of residents will meet at Dedham Middle School in an effort to build a new school health advisory committee. Formed in September, the group is inviting health advocates, parents, and young people to help raise awareness about youth drug abuse, such as heroin ­addiction, in the town of about 25,000.

‘How do we get people out of that cycle? More people are going to have to step up to the plate and be part of the solution.’

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In Norwood, police officers are tackling the problem with a new strategy that focuses on arrest­ing drug dealers and helping landlords to evict them. It also emphasizes getting addicts into treatment and edu­cating the public, according to a depart­ment report titled “Combating the Abuse of ­Heroin and Prescription Painkillers: a Strategy by the ­Norwood Police Depart­ment.”

Officers are gathering intelligence in marked and unmarked cars, on foot, on ­bicycle, in uniform, and in plainclothes. They are also using the department’s website and ­social media sites to provide infor­mation about drug strategy and treatment options to the public.

Elsewhere, volunteers are working to raise awareness about opiate addiction as part of a coalition started by the Youth Health Connection Program at South Shore Hospital and the Plymouth district attorney’s office. Launched about a year ago by the group South Shore Families, Adolescents, and Communities Together Against Substances, or FACTS, the regional network includes Cohasset, ­Hingham, Hull, ­Norwell, and Scituate. The Scituate contingent attracted more than 600 people to a talk about heroin addiction delivered by former Boston Celtics basketball player Chris Herren.

In Rockland, an antidrug group formed last year by two School Committee members launched a “Week of Hope” in September, which also included a visit from Herren, a community walk, and a candle­light vigil.

In Dedham, MacDonald said battling prescription painkiller and heroin abuse requires a multi­layered ­approach.

People overdose, stop breathing, and many are revived by medical intervention, she said. “How do we get people out of that cycle? More people are going to have to step up to the plate and be part of the solution.”

Jim MacDonald, a Dedham selectman who is not related to his colleague, said the new task force seeks to reduce the social stigma that prevents useful discussion of opiate abuse. “It is important to get people talking, so that families get the ­resources they need,” he said.

Meanwhile, the federal government has recognized the efforts of larger municipalities in addressing the opiate problem south of Boston. Lieutenant Detective Patrick Glynn, head of the Quincy Police Department’s drug unit, received the 2012 Advocate for Action award from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy in October.

Eight cities in Massachusetts, including Brockton and Quincy, will receive a share of $3.6 million in federal funds to battle prescription drug abuse among youths aged 12 to 25. The other cities to be awarded funding by the US Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration are ­Boston, Lynn, New Bedford, Fall River, Springfield, and Worcester. 

In Massachusetts, two people a day on average die of addic­tion to opiates, drugs that contain chemical compounds derived from the opium poppy, such as heroin, or prescription painkiller medicine. This is a statistic often cited by US Representative William R. Keating, who served 12 years as Norfolk district attorney and who routinely warns of the need to promote education and to get families talking about this issue south of Boston. south of Boston.

In one recent five-year span, 3,265 ­state residents died of opiate-related over­doses, accord­ing to a 2009 ­report by a group created by the Massachusetts Legislature, the ­OxyContin and ­Heroin Commission.

­Meg Murphy can be reached at msmeg­­­­murphy@gmail.com.
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