EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

March 28, 2014

State senate to meet about opiate epidemic

Overdoses push Patrick to declare public health crisis

By Douglas Moser
dmoser@eagletribune.com

---- — METHUEN — As the number of opiate-related deaths across the state continues to climb, Gov. Deval Patrick has declared a public health emergency that gives the Department of Public Health emergency powers to combat the epidemic.

Meanwhile, a group of state senators has selected Methuen as the site of a hearing Monday to discuss the problem and treatment options in Massachusetts. Methuen has seen an explosion of heroin sales and arrests in the last year.

In declaring the public health emergency, Gov. Patrick outlined steps, including an immediate ban on one drug and the commitment of $20 million to increase drug treatment and recovery services.

In Methuen, the group of six senators will hear testimony from a list of invited people that include police and schools superintendents in a forum from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at City Hall and is open to the public.

“As a family member of an addict, I want people to realize that addiction is a disease and the best treatment is prevention,” said Phil Lahey, a local addiction and treatment advocate. “There should be no shame in treatment.”in a city that has seen an explosion of heroin sales and arrests in the last year.

The committee is comprised of state Sens. Jennifer Flanagan, D-Leominster, William Brownsberger, D-Belmont, John Keenan, D-Quincy, Joan Lovely, D-Salem, Linda Dorcena Forry, D-Boston and Richard Ross, R-Wrentham.

State Sen. Kathleen O’Connor Ives, D-Newburyport, requested the committee come to Methuen. In January the Senate formed a special committee to study drug addiction and treatment options in Massachusetts with a focus on the civil commitment process to address what Senate President Therese Murray described epidemic of opiate addiction in Massachusetts.

“Substance abuse affects everyone and is a public health epidemic that demands our attention,” O’Connor Ives said. “It is important that the Senate committee hear from advocates, clinicians, law enforcement, first-responders and residents in the Merrimack Valley about this problem.”

The Senate committee is also looking at Section 35 commitments, which is involuntarily committing an individual for substance abuse after a finding in court of an addictive disorder where the person is likely to cause serious harm to him or herself.

In Patrick’s declaration, he directed state public health authorities to implement an immediate ban on the prescribing and dispensing of any hydrocodone-only formulation, commonly known as Zohydro, with the administration saying it poses “significant risk to individuals already addicted to opiates and to the public at large.” The ban would last until authorities determine measures are in pace to “safeguard against the potential for diversion, overdose and misuse.”

“We have an epidemic of opiate abuse in Massachusetts, so we will treat it like the public health crisis it is,” Patrick said in a statement.

Other directives include:

— Permission for first responders to carry and administer naloxone, known by the brand name Narcan, a so-called opioid antagonist that can prevent deaths in overdose cases. State officials also announced Narcan will be made available through prescriptions in pharmacies so it will be available to individuals who fear a loved one might overdose.

— A Department of Public Health mandate that physicians and pharmacies use prescription monitoring to guard against abuse or misuse of prescriptions. The program has been voluntary.

— Requiring an expanded Interagency Council on Substance Abuse and Prevention to make recommendations in 60 days on further actions that can be taken.

— Issuance of a public health advisory to educate the public about opioid addiction treatment options.

Methuen and Haverhill police tried recently to disrupt sales after a spike in overdoses in the area was blamed on a certain batch of heroin believed to be mixed with fentanyl, another opiate painkiller.

Police also have stepped up investigations targeting drug sales around the highways, where people from New Hampshire or Maine drive to Methuen and Haverhill to buy heroin from dealers usually living in Lawrence.

Material from the State House News Service was used in this report

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