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Police back Baker’s plan to battle opioid crisis

Governor Charlie Baker spoke to the media after meeting with members of the law enforcement community to discuss the administration’s opioid legislation at the State House in Boston on Thursday.
Governor Charlie Baker spoke to the media after meeting with members of the law enforcement community to discuss the administration’s opioid legislation at the State House in Boston on Thursday.(Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

In a show of political force by Governor Charlie Baker on Thursday, several top law enforcement officials spoke in favor of his controversial bill to address Massachusetts’ deadly opioid abuse crisis.

Police chiefs from across the state and one district attorney offered mostly unequivocal support for the bill. The legislation has drawn criticism for its provisions that would give hospitals new power to force treatment for up to 72 hours on substance abusers who pose a danger to themselves or others and would put new restrictions on first-time opioid prescriptions.

But, flanking Baker at a State House news conference, the officials made clear by their presence and their words that Baker and his bill have the backing of an influential group.

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Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan said it’s up to everyone across Massachusetts to address the opioid abuse scourge, and it starts with doctors and dentists using safe prescribing practices.

“The governor’s bill really addresses that at the grassroots: If you don’t need an opioid, don’t prescribe it,” Sullivan said. “If you do prescribe it, prescribe it for three days. And if you need to do it for more than that, take a look, make sure it’s justified.”

Massachusetts doctors and dentists have bristled at the idea that the state knows their patients’ needs better than they do, and organizations representing both offered sharp opposition when the governor released his plan last week.

Sullivan acknowledged it’s a “tough thing” to tell prescribers what they can or can’t do, “but this is all about the protection of our youth and our citizens so that that pill doesn’t start a heroin addiction that results in death.”

Boston Police Commissioner William B. Evans said he believes he and Mayor Martin J. Walsh are “behind” the bill, but hinted they might have one or two quibbles with the proposed law. Yet, he said, “Anything that we can do to wipe out what’s happening on a daily basis — you know, our officers are out there every day seeing young kids in bathrooms of Burger Kings and all across this city dying because of heroin and it all starts with a pill.”

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The bill would limit practitioners to prescribing no more than a 72-hour supply of opioids to patients the first time they prescribe an opioid to them, with exceptions only for certain very limited emergencies.

Baker’s proposal to allow hospitals to force treatment on certain people suffering from addiction mirrors existing law that permits a 72-hour period of involuntary treatment when a physician determines a person suffers from mental illness and poses a serious risk of harm.

The bill would also strengthen a prescription monitoring program, mandating that every practitioner to check a database before writing an opioid prescription and increase education about the drugs for athletic coaches, parents, and doctors.

During the first half of this year, the number of deaths from opioid overdoses, 684, increased about 6 percent from the same period last year, according to estimates from the state Department of Public Health.

At the news conference, Baker said he has never seen an issue with the kind of negative momentum that the Massachusetts opioid abuse crisis has, and he wants the Legislature to move quickly on his bill.

“Generally speaking,” the governor said, “if you want to break the negative momentum of something, you have to do something to push back on it.”

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Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com.