City Council President John Michitson, left, praised Councilor Colin F. LePage, right, for organizing and leading a discussion Tuesday night on the effects of the opioid crisis on Haverhill.
When the numbers for 2016 are tallied, more than 100 people will have died in Haverhill as a result of drug overdose deaths in the last four years, according to experts in the field.
It was the saddest number in a litany of statistics in a discussion at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting that painted the picture of the ongoing opioid epidemic in Haverhill.
“It’s not getting any better out there,” said City Councilor Colin F. LePage, who knows the truth of that statement better than many.
LePage’s son Christopher lost his battle with addiction in the summer of 2015.
Through tears, LePage spoke of the need to keep talking about the dangers of addiction.
“Folks are getting a little numb and don’t realize the cost to people, to our families and our resources,” he said.
Since his 30-year-old son’s death, LePage has devoted his public life to making a difference for addicts and their families.
He speaks regularly about his family’s experience at local middle schools.
At his invitation, representatives from the fields of public safety, health, politics, religion and community activism appeared before the City Council to talk about the state of the opioid epidemic in Haverhill and potential strategies to address it.
The statistics clearly pinpoint the arrival of the dangerous and deadly synthetic opiate fentanyl on Haverhill’s streets.
In 2013, there were eight overdose deaths in Haverhill. The next year, that number jumped to 34, LePage pointed out.
Trinity Ambulance EMT Kirk Brigham, who’s been on the job for 16 years, said he can track the arrival of fentanyl to the Merrimack Valley back to May 2014.
The cheap synthetic heroin manufactured in China has ravaged the region ever since, with no signs of slowing down.
This January, a Trinity ambulance responded to an overdose a day in Haverhill and an average of nearly three a day in Lowell, Brigham said.
The numbers have steadily increased over the last few years, with 192 overdoses in 2013; 275 in 2014; 296 in 2015 and 302 in 2016. Roughly two-thirds of those were Priority 1, Brigham said, meaning the subjects faced imminent death without lifesaving measures.
For many of the victims, that meant a dose of Narcan.
At the beginning of his career, Brigham said he gave overdose victims a dose one-fifth the strength of what he administers today, reflecting the power of fentanyl compared with the drugs available on Valley streets just a few years ago.
Essex County Sheriff Kevin Coppinger agreed Narcan can be a miracle drug for overdose victims. Unfortunately, he said, it can also provide a crutch for addicts who trust the medication to bring them back from the brink of death only to seek another deadly high.
The former Lynn police chief said a combination of prevention efforts and treatment have the best chance of putting a dent in the local epidemic.
He praised former Sheriff Frank Cousins for creating two 42-bed treatment centers at the county jail in Middleton. He estimated the 28-day detox programs, one for men and one for women, have a roughly 50 percent success rate. There are restrictions on who is admitted, with probation officers and judges working together to give the individuals “a taste of corrections” without putting them into the criminal justice system, he said. Even though the programs are located in the jail, they are managed by health care professionals, not public safety officials.
State Rep. Diana DiZoglio, a member of the House Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse who represents neighborhoods in Haverhill, North Andover, Lawrence and Methuen, said state lawmakers have dedicated additional funding to prevention, education and treatment services, yet the number of overdoses and deaths have continued to rise.
The 2016 House budget crafted by Haverhill Rep. Brian S. Dempsey as Ways and Means chairman included funding for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to create a drug-abuse prevention curriculum for all Massachusetts middle and high schools, DiZoglio said, but the money was cut by Gov. Charlie Baker.
Phil Lahey of Methuen, who leads the Merrimack Valley Prevention and Substance Abuse Project, urged councilors to circulate and sign a petition urging the governor and state Department of Public Health to uphold the No Wrong Door policy, which would change admissions practices for addicts seeking treatment in detox programs.
Lahey explains it this way: Detox programs only accept addicts if they are high on opiates at the time of admission. Most treatment programs will only accept people from detox programs. So, if an addict can’t get into a detox because he’s not high, there’s little to no chance he will be able to receive treatment.
“This policy (No Wrong Door) will require that someone who wants help will get help. They call it an epidemic, treat it like an epidemic,” Lahey said.
DiZoglio said No Wrong Door is “common sense” and deserves to be discussed.