Panel examines addiction problem
GREENFIELD — Close to 75 people gathered in the auditorium of the Greenfield Middle School on Thursday night to air hopes and frustrations as efforts to combat the heroin and opiate problem in Franklin County continue to gain steam.
Linda Sarage, director of the RECOVER Project on Federal Street in Greenfield, has worked in the recovery community for years but said the level of open discussion and acceptance of the problem evidenced Thursday is something new.
“We haven’t been doing this for a while; this is new, it’s a new energy,” Sarage said. “This makes me think that we’re on a new path and that things will change.”
The audience heard from a panel of six people from all angles of the problem gathered together by the Community Health Care Initiative, a community group originally formed to resist service cuts in other areas at the local hospital, for a forum on the intertwined topics of mental health and drug abuse.
State representatives Paul Mark and Denise Andrews were among those in attendance.
“I think the community is taking the first step in admitting there is a problem,” Mark said. Mark said that if the new task force comes up with any specific ideas, the legislative delegation will fight for them at the state level.
The ad-hoc Opioid Education and Awareness Task Force formed over the summer, headed by the sheriff, register of probate and district attorney.
Sheriff Christopher Donelan and Register John Merrigan were among the panelists, with Dr. Ruth Potee, Baystate Franklin Medical Center psychiatric unit nurse Donna Stern, and the mother and grandmother of Ashley Sims, a young woman whose death of a heroin overdose in Dec. 2012 sparked an increase in attention to the problem locally.
Speaking of a letter he recently sent to the governor, Donelan said the county is relying on the state government to recommit to providing resources to help addicts and the mentally ill.
Donelan said at a time when the legislature was more focused on tax cuts than mental health services many of these were cut and have not been replaced, and many people with mental illnesses addictions or both have landed by default in the county jail. “That’s really a tragedy, because these people are sick and they need help, they don’t need to be incarcerated,” Donelan said.
On the other hand, addicts in jail are probably the safest in the county, Donelan said, with enforced sobriety and a growing number of treatment programs.
In the audience, Greenfield Police Chief Robert Haigh similarly spoke of change in law enforcement agencies.
“We need to change our thinking, arrest is not a priority in every situation,” Haigh said. Haigh said in a recent interview his departement is beginning to look at ways to connect addicts with treatment resources. “We’re often the first ones there and we need to be able to help,” he said.
You can reach Chris Curtis at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 257