Task force: Tackling drug abuse in region a group effort
By Hiroko Sato
Lowell Sun, February 4, 2014
LOWELL -- Thirty-four days into the new year, Middlesex County has already seen 11 drug-related deaths.
Lowell Health Director Frank Singleton believes only so much of the blame goes to drug cartels in South America as the root cause of the problem.
In many cases these days, the trouble starts with medicine cabinets at home, Singleton said.
In fact, prescription drugs are so widely available that teenagers would mix them into a bowlful of candy for others to dig into at parties just for fun, Maria Ruggiero, health educator for the Lowell Health Department, said.
Once hooked onto those prescription drugs, they would often switch to less expensive drugs, such as heroin.
However they become addicted to drugs, though, abusers need help. And no agency could tackle the issue alone, said those who serve on the Lowell Opiate Task Force.
"We really have to take a community approach to the enormous problem," said Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan, who founded the task force with Sen. Eileen Donoghue, D-Lowell.
Representatives from area law-enforcement, health, educational and human-services agencies and lawmakers discussed how to best deal with drug problems Monday as they came together for the meeting of the Lowell Opiate Task Force.
Donoghue and Ryan formed the task force about a year ago as a way for various agencies and experts to share their knowledge and collaboratively work on drug problems in the Greater Lowell region.
Lowell Police Superintendent William Taylor, state Reps. David Nangle and Tom Golden, both D-Lowell and William Brownsberger, D-Belmont, were among those who attended the Monday meeting.
Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, D-Leominster, chairwoman of the Special Senate Committee on Drug Abuse and Treatment Options, also spoke about the involuntary drug treatment for abusers under state law Chapter 123, Section 35.
Ryan said collaborations among area agencies have been effective, but drug problems persist because of the sheer volume of drugs available.
That is not only a public-health issue but also a public-safety problem, Taylor said.
That's because every drug addiction case statistically affects about 250 other people, including the victims of drug-related crimes, according to Singleton.
The number of opioid-related deaths in Lowell has fluctuated from 17 in 2008 to 27 in 2009, 19 in 2010, and 34 in 2011.
For 2012, 21 deaths have been confirmed as being opioid-related, but there are also 16 other pending death cases that may or may not turn out to be drug-related.
Seventy-four percent of opioid-related deaths in the city, since 2003, were males.
In Middlesex County, there were an estimated 80 drug-related deaths in Middlesex County in 2013, including 33 that were attributed to heroin, up from 65 drug-related deaths in 2012, including 20 attributed to heroin, according to the Middlesex District Attorney's Office.
Taylor said there are three things drug offenders need to stay sober: A supportive environment, effective treatment programs and deterrents, such as legal consequences. Donoghue and Ryan are hopeful the Drug Court, which is slated to open at Lowell District Court in April, will help increase access to treatment programs for those who need them.
Detoxification doesn't make abuse problems go away, Donoghue said. Having access to treatment programs for an extended period of time is important, she said.
"That (support) has to come from the government, from insurance companies. It has to come from everywhere," Flanagan said.
Flanagan said there are drug problems in all communities and that all have to work together.