AP NEWS

Anti-drug Battle

October 8, 2018

Over the past several years, Massachusetts has made great strides in allocating resources to combat the deadly opioid epidemic.

Anti-drug initiatives -- including prescription monitoring, educational outreach, and funding for 1,100 more treatment beds -- have definitely made a positive impact.

That’s backed up by numbers that show a small decline in fatal opioid overdoses -- 178 fewer in 2017 than the 2,155 recorded the previous year.

While making good use of the commonwealth’s resources, those funds are finite. Every state battling the scourge of drug abuse needs all the help it can get. That’s where the federal government comes in. Washington realizes its own efforts at interdiction and prosecution will be more effective if complemented by related state initiatives.

Worcester District Attorney Joseph Early Jr. recently received some evidence of that federal concern and support by announcing an award of $860,000 in federal grants to divert arrested substance abusers into treatment programs, and pay for a new study through Fitchburg State University that will map opioid use in the region.

Early indicated $500,000 in federal Bureau of Justice Assistance funds will be used to give substance abusers facing criminal prosecution the option of entering a treatment program through Worcester’s AdCare Hospital -- a comprehensive, 114-bed treatment facility that offers inpatient detox and rehab programs.

The pilot version of this program already operates in Leominster and Gardner’s district courts. The grant will now extend the pilot to the district courts in Fitchburg, Clinton and Milford.

Lowell, like Fitchburg, also finds itself in the center of this substance-abuse struggle. It received similar help from the federal government two years ago with grants totaling more than $1.2 million to improve coordination and expand the scope of its response to the opioid epidemic.

Part of those funds were also used improve the city’s use of data in understanding drug use trends.

The $360,000 balance in the Worcester DA’s grant will create a similar effort; it will pay for a new study through Fitchburg State University to track overdose deaths, nonfatal overdoses, and crime; that data will be used to create a map of local opioid activity. The mapping will initially cover Fitchburg, but could expand to other parts of the state depending on available funding.

That information certainly could have helped Greater Lowell officials better understand the July spike in opioid-related EMS calls -- 99 in Lowell alone. Of these, 51 were Priority 1 calls, meaning without treatment, those stricken would have likely died.

Such mapping ability also would help state health officials keep tabs on and maybe even anticipate changing patterns in drug use, like the emergence of fentanyl-laced cocaine as the primary cause of opioid overdoses.

Getting substance abusers help, combined with a better understanding of when and where this illegal activity occurs, adds more weapons to the anti-drug arsenal.

And feds can take some credit for that.

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