FRED BRASON knew there was an opioid crisis in the making long ago, “when nobody was talking about it.” In Wilkes County, N.C., where he lives, the misuse of potent pain-relief drugs like fentanyl, morphine, and oxycodone was rampant. It got so bad that in 2007 the rural county recorded the country’s third-highest rate of overdose deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Nobody had any template or practice or solution that we could follow to fix it,” said Brason. “We decided it’s our house and we’re going to have to do it ourselves.
That was the genesis of Project Lazarus, a nonprofit whose mission is straightforward and formidable: preventing overdoses. The group, which has received national attention, began engaging with local doctors, hospitals, police, behavioral health specialists, schools, and churches to develop a pragmatic way to stem the epidemic. The strategy is working. Wilkes County overdose fatalities dropped by 69 percent between 2009 and 2011, and the number of deaths has since continued to decline.
The success of Project Lazarus offers lessons for communities in Massachusetts, where Governor Charlie Baker recently filed an ambitious bill aimed at combating opioid addiction. State and federal laws that promote drug education and abuse prevention — while providing support for those at risk or in recovery — should be incorporated into any strategy. But history shows legislation alone won’t diminish drug abuse.
The opioid crisis in Massachusetts must also be tackled at the community level, where its ravaging effects are most visible. It needs to be understood as a problem whose damage extends beyond drug users and their families and friends. Addiction should be treated as an affliction, not a crime. And a balance has to be struck between keeping opioids from abusers and allowing those suffering from pain to have unobstructed access to medicine.
The community approach is starting to gain momentum in Massachusetts and some other New England states. One example — which Brason, executive director of Project Lazarus, lauded — is the Angel Initiative launched earlier this year by Gloucester police. Addicts in the North Shore city can hand over their drugs at the police station and immediately be matched with an on-call volunteer who can take them to an emergency room or treatment facility — knowing they won’t face arrest. Last week, the Gloucester Police Department reported 206 people already have received treatment since June 1. The program appears to be a bargain, too. So far it has cost less than $14,000, or about $55 per person helped, with all of the money coming from the department’s drug seizure account.
Lives are being saved — and rebuilt — in places like Rutland, Gloucester, and North Carolina because more people are willing to acknowledge that the misuse of prescription drugs doesn’t just destroy individuals; it can ruin entire communities.