New task force tackles local opiate abuse
Franklin County Sheriff Christopher Donelan,of Orange, in a file photo in his office at the Franklin County Jail and House of Correction in Greenfield.
GREENFIELD — A group of prominent local leaders in politics, legal circles and social service agencies has begun meeting to address the proliferation of heroin and the abuse of chemically related prescription painkillers.
The ad-hoc Opiate Abuse Task Force began to take shape this summer through the efforts of Franklin County Register of Probate John Merrigan, Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan, Franklin County Sheriff and former state representative Christopher Donelan and others.
The focus of discussion last week was what to do in the face of a problem that doesn’t appear to be reached by the existing solutions.
The inadequacy of punishment, prevention programs focusing on more common but less harmful substances and denial in the schools were among the points raised.
Jail Superintendent David Lanoie said new drug dealers replace arrested drug dealers and drugs are still making it into correctional facilities statewide.
“What do we do as a community when we can’t have a deterrent effect with a 40-year correctional sentence at the federal level?” asked jail Superintendent David Lanoie. “If you can’t punish enough to deter, what’s the solution?”
“It’s a community problem and I think there’s a community solution,” Sullivan said, pointing to the planned 25-bed women’s treatment center in Greenfield as representative of a sea-change in attitudes to addiction.
Sullivan urged the group to think in terms of the broader region, including Franklin and Hampshire counties and the North Quabbin region.
Several spoke of the difficulty of securing money through the existing federal prevention grants.
“We kind of get passed over because of our numbers. There isn’t gang involvement, no shootings, but people are dying anyway,” Merrigan said. The problem hit home for him, he said, with the overdose death of a niece.
The assembly this month included more than 30 people representing disparate community groups, local, regional and state agencies and others impacted by the problem, including Karen Sims of Leyden, who lost her granddaughter to a heroin overdose in December.
Ashley Sims died of a heroin overdose at the age of 22 in her Greenfield apartment on Dec. 11, less than a year after she was exposed to the drug. Wishing to call attention to a hidden problem, her grandmothers chose to publish the cause of Ashley’s death in her obituary, leading to a week-long series of articles published in this paper in mid-May examining the extent and impact of opiates in Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region. To read the series, visit: http://bit.ly/16vUnxU
The Franklin County Sheriff’s Office, the Greenfield District Court, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and Department of Children and Families, the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office, the North Quabbin Community Coalition, the Recover Project, and private health and human service agencies ServiceNet, Tapestry Health and Clinical and Support Options were among those represented.
Greenfield Community College President Robert Pura hosts the meetings on the GCC campus, where the group first met in mid-August.
“We had probably half this number at our first meeting in August,” Merrigan said.
Earlier this year, Merrigan attended a conference of the Heroin Education Awareness Task Force, a program of the Woburn District Court probation department, and began discussing the possibility of hosting the conference in Greenfield.
The discussion rapidly snowballed into the present task force, and plans to emulate the Woburn program remain on the agenda.
Merrigan said the state court system is becoming quicker and more responsive with a new administration and a new chief justice, who are challenging the local courts.
When the Greenfield District Court moves to its temporary location on Munson Street, a new Court Service Center will open, he said.
One of two such offices funded through the Trial Court, Merrigan said the Center will connect people with resources to help solve problems underlying their legal issues. Merrigan estimated 80 to 90 percent of cases coming through the court are drug-related, and even more of the petty crime listed in the police logs.
Merrigan was impressed with the Woburn effort’s success and said he wants to bring the founders down to explain how they got started.
Also on the agenda are efforts to promote participation in the state’s prescription drug monitoring program, expanding treatment and intervention programs and services and expanding the DA’s existing prescription drug take-back program.
The problem is far from exclusive to Franklin or Hampshire Counties, with reports of a rise in heroin use and heroin deaths across the country in recent years, particularly in rural areas, and often tied to parallel damage from prescription painkillers.
Prescription opiates such as morphine, codeine, the oxycodone compounds OxyContin and Percocet and the addiction therapy drug methadone share a common ancestor with morphine and have similar effects. Separated by their source more than their effects, the relative popularity of the legally and illegally manufactured opiates fluctuates based on the price and availability of each category.
Heroin is now commonly pure enough to snort or smoke, easing the transition from popping or snorting pills for users leery of needles, and is generally cheaper.
At $5 a bag, Rebecca Bialecki of the North Quabbin Community Coalition said, it is also a cheaper alternative to alcohol abuse.
“In our community we saw a big shift from alcohol to heroin, really directly without any steps in between, some of it because of the economy,” Bialecki said. “Heroin, it’s five bucks.”
That shift occurred in the Athol-Orange region within about the past two to five years, Bialecki said, a timeframe consistent with reports of the rise of heroin throughout the region.
Bialecki said there is no demographic to the addiction, with everyone from college-bound young people hooked following prescriptions for high school sports injuries through the elderly, also often introduced by way of pain medication.
Not counting non-fatal overdoses, Bialecki said she was aware of four fatal overdoses in the North Quabbin in the past four months.
The task force meets next in November.
You can reach Chris Curtis at:
or 413-772-0261, ext. 257