Heroin overdoses on the rise

Doctor says anecdotal evidence indicates current batch of street drug may be particularly dangerous

Narcan is a treatment available to intervene in an opiate overdose. It is available for free through Tapestry Health Services in Northampton and Holyoke. 
photo courtesy of Tapestry Health

Narcan is a treatment available to intervene in an opiate overdose. It is available for free through Tapestry Health Services in Northampton and Holyoke. photo courtesy of Tapestry Health

A young man survived what police said was an apparent heroin overdose on Saturday night in Greenfield, and it appears he was one of the lucky ones.

There is no central agency that records or reports drug overdose deaths in a timely fashion, but fatal overdoses on heroin or prescription painkillers appear to be rising.

“In the past 30 days, the state police detective unit and local police have investigated seven suspected opioid overdose deaths in Hampshire and Franklin counties. We will not be able to officially confirm such overdose deaths until the Office of the Medical Examiner releases the relevant autopsy and toxicology reports,” Northwestern Attorney David Sullivan wrote this week in response to requests for numbers in the face of persistent anecdotal reports of a rising number of deaths in Franklin County since the new year.

“These deaths highlight the desperate need for increased detoxification, treatment and recovery programs in western Massachusetts,” Sullivan wrote.

If the numbers prove to be correct, Franklin and Hampshire counties have lost an unprecedented number of residents to heroin or painkiller overdoses.

Seven opioid deaths spread across the two counties in the space of a month would be slightly more than half the combined number dead of all varieties of overdose in a 12-month period two years ago, the most recent year for which data is available.

A recent number narrowed to Franklin County — whose Census Bureau-estimated population is less than half the size of its neighbor to the south, 71,540 residents compared to 159,795 — could not be obtained from the DA’s office or elsewhere.

Dr. Kishi Talati, medical director of the Baystate Franklin Medical Center Emergency Department said in a statement that opiate abuse is a major problem in the community, heroin and painkillers are equally dangerous and the department sees an ebb and flow of opiate-related problems throughout the year.

“It’s hard to say whether opiate overdoses are generally on the rise, though we’re keeping an eye on the number of these patients we are caring for to see if we can identify any trends,” Talati wrote.

The latest of the state Department of Public Health’s annual Death Reports puts the number of Franklin County deaths as a result of narcotics overdoses at six over the course of 12 months in 2011, seven during the same period in Hampshire County.

The DPH does not break overdose numbers down into specific drug categories, lumping all drugs from heroin to cannabis together under the label of narcotics. The report does however note that “opioids, including heroin, oxycodone, morphine, codeine and methadone, continued to be the agent most associated with poisoning deaths (66 percent).”

A commission tasked with examining the state’s growing prescription painkiller and heroin problem called the reported numbers conservative estimates “as often times other causes of death are listed on a death certificate.”

In Saturday’s case in Greenfield, Detective Lt. Daniel McCarthy of the Greenfield Police Department said a man in his mid 20s was taken from the Miles Street Hotel, 12 Miles St., to Baystate Franklin Medical Center. McCarthy said this was the man’s second apparent heroin overdose that he knew of in the past two months.

McCarthy said overdoses are becoming more prevalent, both from what the department sees in Greenfield and what he hears from the State Police around the county. McCarthy said he knows of four fatal overdoses in the past couple of months, two in the end of December to the beginning of January time-frame.

The day before, the Greenfield police log records another apparent overdose, in which a 28-year-old Lake Pleasant man was found passed out in the bathroom of the Wendy’s restaurant on Federal Street with heroin bags and a needle nearby. The man survived and was summoned to court on a charge of heroin possession.

Dr. Ruth Potee, a Greenfield physician who includes addiction treatment in her general practice, worried the number might represent a conservative estimate.

Potee said that before noon on Monday she had met with three young men who had overdosed on heroin over the weekend. Two said they didn’t believe the drug was cut with anything but was the purest they had ever had, with their usual quantity enough to send them into an overdose.

“Even those numbers, even if we’re working with conservative numbers, are still really alarming,” Potee said.

“The word I would want to get out to the average heroin user is buyer beware — whatever is out there is much more potent,” Potee said.

Potee said she would advise everyone to clean out their medicine cabinets and dispose of any drugs they don’t use, and for anyone who knows of a drug-user in their family to obtain Narcan.

Opiate overdoses, whether from heroin or pills, put the user to sleep and breathing and other functions slow to a stop. Narcan, the most common brand formulation of the opiate antagonist naloxone, brings the patient abruptly back to sobriety. The effect may be short-lived, but the drug can be re-administered and has no negative interactions with other drugs the user may have taken.

Potee said MassHealth insurance covers Narcan pills but doesn’t cover Narcan nasal spray, which is absorbed through the mucous membranes and doesn’t require that the patient be able to breathe, let alone swallow a pill.

The nasal spray is, however, available free from Tapestry Health Services’ Northampton and Holyoke needle exchange programs after a brief training, all part of a DPH pilot program aimed at stemming overdose deaths by reaching out to the friends and family of addicts. For more information on trainings, group or individual, call the Northampton Needle Exchange at 413-586-0310.

The Greenfield, Montague, Athol, Orange, Deerfield, Erving and Sunderland police stations have no-questions-asked drop-boxes for unwanted medications, an effort begun by the District Attorney’s office to keep medications out of the reach of young people and thieves.

The boxes are emptied monthly, but Sunday McCarthy was on his knees with a plastic sack, pulling hand-fulls of pill cases, bags and bottles from the Greenfield station’s drop-box because it had become too clogged to open six days short of the trash collection. The station collects 35 to 46 pounds of drugs a month, McCarthy said.

You can reach Chris Curtis at: ccurtis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 257

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