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Baker continues call for tougher laws to combat addiction

Mary Peckham, who lost a son to a drug overdose, attended a forum in Dorchester Monday.
Mary Peckham, who lost a son to a drug overdose, attended a forum in Dorchester Monday. (Keith Bedford/Globe Staff)

Governor Charlie Baker made another pitch Monday evening for his controversial legislation to combat an opioid addiction crisis that claims more than 100 lives every month in Massachusetts.

“This is a fast-moving train,” Baker told an audience of about 450 people at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate in Dorchester. “We simply aren’t going to be able to turn this tide unless we run at this and run at this hard.”

Baker’s legislation would allow hospitals to hold opioid-addicted patients against their will for 72 hours for treatment if they pose a risk to themselves or others. The bill would also limit first-time opioid prescriptions to a 72-hour supply in an effort to limit patients’ exposure to the habit-forming pain medications.

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Baker talked about the need to educate prescribers about the dangers of allowing patients to walk out the door after surgery with a supply of pain medications lasting a month or more.

The legislation has received support from top law enforcement officials, but criticism from organizations representing doctors and dentists, and caution from top lawmakers.

Baker’s remarks were made inside the institute’s replica of the US Senate Chamber during a forum on combating the opioid epidemic. The panel also included Baker’s Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders, US Senator Edward J. Markey, and Middlesex Sheriff Peter Koutoujian.

Giving authority to hospitals to keep patients struggling with addiction who pose a risk to themselves or others is a way to convince patients of the need to seek voluntary treatment, Sudders said.

Many of the panelists’ remarks were geared toward an audience that included people whose families have been affected by addictions to heroin and painkillers, and who are now trying to change public policy to make more treatment available.

Koutoujian drew applause when he talked about efforts to decriminalize addiction, and to keep people who need treatment out of prison.

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Markey talked about gridlock in Washington, D.C., but said that people affected by the crisis may be able to break through and change lawmakers’ priorities. “That army of activists are now on the move,” Markey said. “Congress is a stimulus response institution.”

The opioid crisis in Massachusetts claimed an estimated 684 lives during the first six months of this year, a 6 percent increase over the same period last year, according to the state Department of Public Health.

Kathy Leonard of Marlborough was one of several audience members wearing a T-shirt bearing the image of a loved one who had died from drug addiction. Leonard, whose son, Jonathan Testa, died of a heroin overdose, has worked to raise awareness of the crisis in her city and runs a grief support group for families who have lost loved ones to substance abuse addiction. She came to the discussion to learn about efforts to address the opioid abuse epidemic, she said.

“Unfortunately it’s too late for my son, but I want to help other people,” Leonard said.

Fitchburg State University nursing student Ashleigh Dube of Auburn said she enjoyed the discussion but was hoping to hear more about preventing addictions from beginning.

“They didn’t address the problem of how they’re getting drugs off the street,” Dube said.

The event was part of the institute’s Across the Aisle series, which brings together officials from different political parties to collaborate about solutions to problems.

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Jill Terreri Ramos can be reached at jill.ramos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jillterreri.