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Addiction in Franklin County

Sheriff to gov.: Help fight ‘addiction crisis’

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.

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 — Pointing to the Vermont governor’s recent stance on the growing opiate problem in his state, Franklin County Sheriff Christopher Donelan has called on Gov. Deval Patrick to help with an intensifying addiction crisis in Franklin County and the North Quabbin region.

“I am writing to bring your attention to a public health emergency in Franklin County. Our small, rural county is being devastated with the scourge of heroin addiction,” Donelan opened the letter, dated Wednesday.

Baystate Franklin Medical Center’s emergency room treated nine heroin overdoses in the past weekend alone, and three young people have died since last Thursday in suspected heroin overdoses, Donelan wrote, calling the numbers alarming for a small community.

“I am writing to make you aware of a crisis building in our community and ask you to help by committing the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to assisting us as we share ideas to help families and addicts get the help they need,” Donelan wrote.

Franklin County cannot fight the crises alone, Donelan said in a release accompanying the letter Thursday.

“This will involve a multi-pronged approach including enforcement, treatment and intervention,” Donelan is quoted as saying. “None of this will be cheap and none of our towns can afford the cost of eradicating drug dealers, treating the addicted and supporting long term treatment. We will need help from the state.”

Gov. Peter Shumlin of Vermont recently devoted almost his entire State of the State address to the opiate problem in his state, and called in his budget proposal Wednesday for an additional $10 million in new spending on the problem, primarily for treatment and prevention, the Associated Press reports.

Like Shumlin, Donelan and other law enforcement and court officials in the county have expressed little faith in the deterrent effect of jailing addicts.

“In the long term, we need intervention and treatment,” Donelan said. “The Dept. of Public Health will be integral in helping us with that. We cannot arrest our way out of this problem.”

Calls to the governor’s office went unanswered late Thursday afternoon.

Local efforts are already under way

Donelan has strengthened addiction treatment programs in the Franklin County House of Correction, where he has said 80 percent of the inmates have substance abuse problems.

Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan in the spring of 2013 established the multi-agency Anti-Crime Task Force, with money from the Community Innovation Challenge Grant Program. Opiate addiction was the stated first priority of the task force.

Later that year, Donelan, Sullivan and Franklin County Register of Probate and Family Court John F. Merrigan launched an Opiate Abuse Task Force. The ad-hoc group has met three times, bringing together dozens of area leaders and professionals interested in stopping the proliferation of the opiate problem in Franklin and Hampshire counties and the North Quabbin region.

Merrigan hopes the court will be able to take a stronger role in connecting defendants in drug-related cases — he estimates it’s 80 to 90 percent of the Franklin County case load — with treatment programs.

Merrigan said Thursday he and other local court staff, with Sullivan, took advantage of a prescheduled video conference with the Massachusetts court administrators about the upcoming Franklin County Courthouse renovation to address the problem.

“We just kind of hammered home that we have this crisis upon us and asked for their support in terms of upping our resources in terms of probation staff,” Merrigan said. “We’re kind of doing an all out assault in terms of our efforts to get resources here.”

Medical and law enforcement professionals in Franklin County, as elsewhere, have identified a growing trend in young people and medical patients becoming addicted to prescription opioid painkillers, legitimately or illicitly. Once addicted, these users often transfer to heroin, which has a similar effect at a fraction of the cost and is now commonly pure enough to ingest by snorting or smoking, not only through the needles that may have scared off some users previously. Both heroin and painkillers such as Percocet and OxyContin carry the risk of overdose. Heroin carries an additional risk in that it is impossible for the buyer, and often the seller, to know what the drug has been mixed with and how pure it might be. An unexpectedly pure dose can be far more dangerous than one cut with baby powder, sweetener or other additives used by dealers to stretch their product.

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

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