Commentary: Combating Substance Abuse

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Editor’s note: The following op-ed piece, written by Canton Police Chief Ken Berkowitz and Canton Fire Chief Charlie Doody, will appear in the June 25 edition of the Canton Citizen.

Police Chief Berkowitz

Police Chief Berkowitz

In response to two overdoses (one fatal and the other nonfatal) in our community over the recent weeks, the Canton Police Department collectively made a decision to warn the public, via social media, about a potent batch of heroin in our area. This thought process was unusual in the law enforcement arena for a couple of reasons. Primarily, police departments are usually quiet about anything that may jeopardize the integrity of an investigation and secondly, many towns choose not to publicize that heroin actually exists in their communities. After consulting with the detectives that were investigating the source of the drugs used, it was determined that the best way to prevent another tragedy in our town was to get the information out ASAP. In fact, we all agreed that is was more important than taking down a low-level drug dealer. Our decision set off a flurry of inquiries, many concerned residents called the fire chief, the selectmen, and myself to ask about the scope of the problem in our community.

doody

Fire Chief Doody

The baseline for understanding where the town of Canton stands in comparison to other surrounding communities is found within the latest data put out by the Norfolk County District Attorney’s office on the subject. From February 2015 through May 2015, there have been 43 fatal overdoses in Norfolk County; 33 of them were male and 10 were female. Seventeen of 27 communities in Norfolk County have had one or more overdose deaths: Quincy – 13, Weymouth – 6, Stoughton – 5, Dedham – 2, Braintree – 2, Wrentham – 2, Norwood – 2, Foxborough – 1, Walpole – 1, Westwood – 1, Medway -1, Plainville – 1, Randolph – 1, Franklin – 1, Brookline – 1, Milton – 1, and our community of Canton – 2. The victims ranged in age from 19 to 60 years old, with the average age being 36. The drugs the victims were using before they passed away are as follows: heroin only 14, opiates and benzodiazepines 10, and cocaine 5. Nine were participating in a drug maintenance program such as Suboxone or Methadone. Eleven were recently released from a rehabilitation program. Four had had prior overdoses that were successfully reversed by first responders utilizing the drug Naloxone, commonly referred to as nasal Narcan. At seven of the scenes, anti-drug addiction medicines such as gabapentin, Lyrica and Neurontin were present or prescribed to the patient. (Click here for historical data on opioid overdose deaths by town.)

Three years ago, Governor Deval Patrick declared that opiate abuse was at an epidemic level in Massachusetts. In response, Canton Fire Chief Charles Doody, School Superintendent Jeffrey Granatino and I started the Canton Substance Abuse Coalition. We expanded the partnership to include the town’s Health and Recreation departments, the Blue Hills Regional School District, clinicians, social workers, probation officers, and representatives from the district attorney’s office in an effort to get a larger overall view of the problem and collaborate on preventative strategies to combat it. We came before the Board of Selectmen and the School Committee to announce the formation of the group. We utilized $10,000 donated to the Canton Police by Dunkin Brands, which we asked the selectmen to earmark to the Canton Substance Abuse Coalition as seed money to help fund activities.

In addition, the coalition has applied for and received a grant for $1,500 from the Blue Hills Community Health Alliance, which was utilized to fund programs and activities like the recent April vacation alternatives for teens — a movie night at Pequitside Farm and hypnotist at Canton High School. Further, Canton recently was selected to be part of a cluster grant that will leverage the resources and expertise of our neighboring coalitions in Stoughton, Holbrook and Walpole. This multi-year grant will result in the hiring of a cluster coordinator who will coordinate resources and develop a program to address opioid abuse targeting sixth through 12th graders.

For the past two years, the coalition has sponsored open gym nights, movie nights, and sledding parties throughout the various seasons in an effort to offer a drug- and alcohol-free alternative to teens in the town. In addition, Canton’s coalition, with the help of the schools, has completed a Youth Risk Behavior Survey of middle and high school students, which will help guide the coalition in developing programs that target that “at-risk” population. Moreover, the coalition, with the assistance of the Canton Fire Department, Canton resident Dr. Daniel Muse, and Todd Brown, the pharmacist coordinator for the Norfolk County district attorney, held training for area pharmacists to familiarize them with nasal Naloxone and the burgeoning impact of opiates on our young people. Most recently, the coalition sponsored an educational program for Galvin Middle School parents and students presented by Traci Wojciechowski from the Caron Student Assistance Program. Students participated in small group discussions about the risks involved in substance abuse, and a separate meeting was held for parents to educate them about substance abuse in middle school age children. Sadly, attendance for all of our parent programs has been low.

We have one of the most comprehensive school resource officer programs in Norfolk County. We have officers assigned to Canton High School as well as Blue Hills Regional. Last year, the Board of Selectmen unanimously endorsed the expansion of the program, on a full-time basis, to the Galvin Middle School to proactively identify and help at-risk students at an earlier age. There is no other police department that I know of that has committed these resources to their town schools. We have assigned an “Adopt-A-School” officer to every public elementary school to act as a liaison. We have held several drug awareness programs at Canton High School to include the notMYkid program. We have hosted subject matter experts to address the drug issues plaguing our youth. This fall, we are expanding our canine program to include a drug-sniffing dog, which will increase our capabilities and frequency to continue performing searches of the school. We are hoping we will be given the flexibility to include student backpacks in the coming school year.

Since studies have shown that prescription medicine abuse is the number-one reason people get hooked on heroin, both Chief Doody and I, along with District Attorney Michael Morrissey, have personally visited every pharmacy in town to brief the pharmacist on what to recognize in people who may be abusing their scripts. We have also assigned a liaison detective to each store. We have launched several public awareness campaigns to encourage residents to clean out their medicine cabinets of unused drugs. In order to help with the safe disposal of these potentially abused drugs, there is a receptacle located in the lobby of the Canton Police Department that is accessible 24 hours day, seven days a week.

The Canton Fire Department has carried the reversal drug Naloxone for well over 10 years. Each of the Fire Department’s 52 firefighter/EMTs and paramedics are trained in its use and have administered the drug in hundreds of instances and saved countless lives. Further, under the direction of Canton resident Dr. Dan Muse, the Canton Police Department has also trained every officer to carry the drug. Dr. Muse has been a tireless advocate for this program and his efforts have led to numerous lives being saved. It is important to note that while other departments had to wait for their contract to open up in order to negotiate the terms of carrying Narcan, the officers of the Canton Police Department voluntarily took the extra duties on without compensation. We used funds seized from drug dealers to train them and we have already saved at least four lives with it.

This problem is a societal problem and it is not going to be solved by law enforcement. As a culture we have become transfixed into living pain free, both physically and mentally. Many physicians are too willing and too quick to prescribe pain medicines, and many pharmacists are too willing to fill every prescription that walks in the door without question. The nationwide effort to legalize marijuana has led to an attitude of indifference to recreational drug use. While there is no scientific evidence identifying marijuana use as a gateway to opioid abuse, many victims who have died of a drug overdose first experimented with marijuana. We simply can’t ignore the anecdotal evidence that heroin use begins with drugs such as marijuana and opioids.

This epidemic is basic economics. As long as there is a demand, there will always be someone selling drugs in or near our community. In interviews with hundreds of addicts and users, sadly, the stories are pretty much the same. They started experimenting with drugs and alcohol at a young age. Others were high school or college athletes who were prescribed medication for legitimate injuries and became hooked. Some were caretakers for whom the stress became too much and the medication surrounding them too accessible. When they could no longer afford their prescription, or the doctor would no longer renew it, they turned to the cheaper alternative of using street drugs.

Most, if not all of the heroin in our community is supplied by several surrounding source cities. We have a strong network and have worked closely with local, state and federal partners to arrest people who furnish drugs to people in out town. Canton Police Detective Paul Gallagher has been assigned to a DEA task force for almost 10 years. Unfortunately, for each of the drug dealers this partnership takes off of the street, there are others waiting to take their place.

Our efforts are unparalleled, but there is much work to be done. The men and women of the Canton Police Department are committed and dedicated to putting forth the effort to enforce the drug laws. The members of the Substance Abuse Coalition are also committed to educating our kids, our parents, and our community about the dangers of substance abuse. If we lose one resident we have lost too many; there are no acceptable casualties in this battle. We have a great town, led by a group of caring and compassionate people serving on our Board of Selectmen and School Committee. We have empathetic, committed and dedicated police officers and firefighters that truly care about all of our residents.

In closing, we need volunteers to help out with programs like open gyms; we need businesses to help support us financially; we need parents to insist on abstinence when it comes to underage drinking or using marijuana. We need every teacher, every coach, every clergy member to constantly reinforce the inherent dangers that go along with drug experimentation. In short, we need a community to combat substance abuse and its devastating effects on families.

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avatar Posted by on Jun 18 2015. Filed under Featured Content, From One Citizen to Another, Opinion.
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