NOTE: The meeting for tonight has been postponed due to the storm. A new date has yet to be selected.
Cape Cod has the unfortunate distinction of consistently leading the state in opiate addiction numbers. The problem is so severe here, it’s been labeled an epidemic. One of the drivers of the problem is Heroin. It’s a cheap high, readily available on the street, and it affects a wide cross-section of people. On Wednesday, March 26th, representatives from local law enforcement and human service agencies will hold a community forum to examine what’s led to the current crisis, and what can be done about it.
When it comes to the reasons behind the recent spike in heroin addiction and overdoses on Cape Cod, Barnstable County Sheriff Jim Cummings cited recent history. He said that up until a few years ago, dealers would make pilgrimages to Florida pain clinics – better known as pill mills - where getting a prescription for powerful opiates was about as easy as just showing up.
“People would hop in a car on Thursday and drive down to Florida, and hit as many pain clinics as they could, and then come back with those pharmaceuticals and sell ‘em here on the Cape,” said Cummings.
Lawmakers and police disrupted that system beginning in 2011, cracking down on the pill mills, and in some cases shuttering them. That dried up the supply of oxycodone and other types of opiate pills, and it drove prices sky-high. Once that happened, Sheriff Cummings said it left addicts with two choices.
“One was get straight, which isn’t easy, and the other one was to use heroin,” he said.
That heroin has become cheap and readily available from nearby communities such as New Bedford, Fall River and Brockton. Some of it may be laced with Fentanyl, another opiate, which intensifies the high, and has been blamed for many recent overdoses. Cummings said another way for people to become easily addicted is when they have a legitimate injury and get an opiate painkiller prescription from a doctor.
“Once that source dries up, and they can’t get it any more from the doctor, then they go to the street,” Cummings explained. “And now, since the pain clinics are gone and doctors are more aware of what they’re prescribing, hopefully, they have no other option but to turn to heroin.”
During the last 10 years, there’s been a 50% increase nationally in the amount of opiate prescriptions, with Vicodin being the most prescribed drug in the country.
“It’s of great concern right now, and it’s good to see that the District Attorney, the community providers like Gosnold, and law enforcement are getting involved to try to resolve the problem,” said Cummings.
Ray Tomasi is President of Gosnold on Cape Cod, a Falmouth-based addiction treatment center. Tomasi said many people don’t know who to call when a friend or family member’s drug use spins out of control.
“No one ever thinks about calling their doctor, because it isn’t really viewed by most people as a health condition,” said Tomasi. “It’s viewed as some sort of aberrant behavior that requires something that a doctor could never help you with.”
Tomasi said that as an addiction progresses, many people need to use heroin multiple times a day just as a maintenance dose. If they don’t use, they feel sick.
“Most folks, when they get to the place where they’re coming to see us, are really using to try to feel what they believe is normal. And euphoria, and the pleasure of the high, is more of a distant memory,” he said.
Tomasi explained that Gosnold treats addiction as a chronic illness.
“You don’t consider yourself finished just because you’ve been to a rehab,” he said.
Tomasi said he’s looking forward to the March 26th community forum.
“We’ll be letting folks know about some of the newer things that we’ll be doing to try to impact this epidemic, as it’s being called,” he said.
These include physician education programs, post-rehab patient engagement, social media recovery networks and family support groups. And while none of these is a magic solution, officials acknowledge the need to attack the growing problem from every possible angle.