State report on opioid epidemic reflects need for more resources, prevention

  • Department of Public Health, 2017 Chapter 55 annual reporT Department of Public Health, 2017 Chapter 55 annual reporT

  • Department of Public Health, 2017 Chapter 55 annual report

  • “Burden” of the opioid epidemic on towns in Franklin County, according to Department of Public Health Chapter 55 annual report, reflecting 2015 data. In the highest category are Greenfield, Orange and Bernardston. Recorder Staff/Joshua Solomon

  • Data reflects 2017 Department of Public Health Chapter 55 annual report, showing the percentage of patients in treatment listing heroin as their primary substance of use in 2015. It now exceeds more than 50 percent in Greenfield and surpasses alcohol as the chief substance that patients in treatment list as their primary substance. Recorder Staff/Joshua Solomon

Recorder Staff
Published: 8/28/2017 11:42:36 PM

GREENFIELD — Sheriff Chris Donelan was speaking with someone he considered a friend, local opioid expert Dr. Ruth Potee, when all of a sudden she “lambasted” the Franklin County House of Correction. Why?

People coming into the jail were routinely running into issues after being released, overdosing with a regularity not previously seen. It needed to be made sure that when people left the jail, they weren’t going to immediately risk their lives.

“When she said that, it just hit me,” Donelan said. “It’s as clear as the nose on my face.”

Since February 2016, the jail has run a program using Medication Assisted Treatment for people awaiting trial. If they came in with a doctor’s prescription for something like Suboxone, a drug that helps people addicted to opioids like heroin or oxycodone, then the jail would fill that prescription, treating it like any other prescription for someone ill, not as a drug.

This has been well-documented at this point, and most recently, the state gave money to five jails across the state to follow a program that the Franklin County House of Correction had already been running in part.

But the need was understated before the release of the state’s annual Chapter 55 report on the reach of the opioid epidemic.

Nearly 50 percent of all deaths among those released from incarceration were opioid-related, according to the Chapter 55 report that uses the most recent data available, dating back to 2015. For those who did die from opioid-related causes when released from jail, the average time it occurred was after 19 months; and more often than not it happened in the first month of release.

When reading the data, Donelan was taken aback.

“It’s shocking, even though I knew it was an issue,” Donelan said. “It’s shocking to see these numbers.”

Donelan has recently started running a reentry program to try to address these problems.

The 100-page report dives deeply into at-risk populations of opioid-related death and facing issues down the line. It also helps to paint a picture of what is happening at the local level, as rural areas are challenged to reach all populations that could be affected by the crisis that kills more people in the country than the HIV epidemic did at its peak.

One paragraph in the Chapter 55 report shows that, over the past five years, people’s primary reason for seeking substance-use treatment has become opioids and not alcohol.

In Greenfield in 2011, 68 percent of the people whose primary substance of use when entering treatment was alcohol, while 15 percent of them went in using opioids. In the most recent year of data in 2015, opioids lead the way at 55 percent, with alcohol at 33 percent.

The report divides communities into one of five categories of severity of the epidemic. Greenfield and Orange received top billing; Montague, Northfield, Shelburne and Erving were second-tiered.

But also in that number-one slot for severity of the epidemic was Bernardston, which Opioid Task Force co-founder John Merrigan says reflects a year in which a group of high schoolers in the neighborhood were affected by the epidemic.

“Over the past three or four years, you’ll see a spike in a certain town and then we’ll start to hear stories of a group of young folks and they all know each other and all of a sudden they are caught together,” said Merrigan, register probate at the Franklin court.

It starts at the schools

Merrigan said prevention is up to the community, and that it’s up to the schools to lead the charge.

“That’s where the schools need to really wake up and join the battle,” Merrigan said. “You can’t turn a blind eye to this. I don’t care how you think it impacts your school. One death from any child from any school district is unacceptable.”

He said if it takes the task force knocking door-to-door, going from school-to-school to start to better educate and look out for signs of heroin issues, then that is what the Opioid Task Force will do. He said in the coming months, task force members will be looking toward what they can do to better address issues at the root of it.

The sheriff would like to see continued reform by the state and the country in how the prison system is set up to treat addiction.

“We really have to revamp our treatment infrastructure not only in the state but in the country,” Donelan said. “It’s got to be at least six months and not a 14-day dry spit.”

Reach Joshua Solomon at:


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