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Lynn struggles to control opioid addiction as Mass. leaders gather to discuss the problem

Moderator and Washington Post correspondent Katie Zezima discusses opioid addiction with forensic pathologist Thomas Andrew, Learn to Cope founder Joanne Peterson, and Essex County Sheriff Kevin Coppinger.
Moderator and Washington Post correspondent Katie Zezima discusses opioid addiction with forensic pathologist Thomas Andrew, Learn to Cope founder Joanne Peterson, and Essex County Sheriff Kevin Coppinger. (Thomas Grillo)

LYNN — Although deaths from drug overdoses fell by more than 8 percent in the state last year, the number of fatalities in Lynn increased.

“Lynn has been known as a place where people come to buy drugs,” said Police Lt. Michael Kmiec. “If they buy them here and use them immediately, it increases the chances they could die here.”

The number of deaths from opioid-related overdoses in Lynn increased in 2017 to 68, up from 50 in 2016, according to the Lynn Police Department.

The issue of drug deaths was center stage Thursday at the “Addiction in America” conference at Boston’s Hyatt Regency. The two-hour session sponsored by The Washington Post featured elected officials, medical experts and advocates on the front lines of combating the opioid crisis in Greater Boston.

Panelists included Gov. Charlie Baker, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, Essex County Sheriff Kevin Coppinger, and former President Barack Obama’s “Drug Czar” Michael Botticelli.

On treatment, Coppinger said his department operates a detoxification program.

“The good news is we offer a 28-day program with 42 beds for men and 42 for women,” he said. “The bad news is you have to be arrested to take advantage of it. Sometimes, folks need that to get and complete treatment.”

He boasted an 87 percent completion rate among male inmates and 80 percent for females. His staff works closely with judges, district attorneys, defense attorneys, probation officers and police to find solutions, he said.

“The idea is to give these clients options,” he said. “It gives them a taste of what it’s like to be in jail … and treatment that is run by private health care professionals.”

After successfully completing detox, the inmate appears before a judge and hopefully has a desire to get his or her life back in order, Coppinger said.

Since he became sheriff more than a year ago, Coppinger said his focus has been on making sure those released are successful in re-entering the community. Typically, inmates who have been jailed for drug use go back into the streets when they are released.

“That’s when they are highly susceptible,” he said. “Some go back to the same dosage and die.”

Now, he said, the department is partnering with recovery coaches who create a treatment plan when they leave jail.

“Our goal is when they leave us, we send them home with a tool box,” Coppinger said. “If they are having a bad day, they have someone to call and get them back on track.”

Baker said he and state legislators have championed multifaceted legislation designed to combat the opioid epidemic. The rate of overdose deaths may have decreased last year, but the state is still in the midst of a crisis, he said.

“No one in Massachusetts is doing anything other than breathing a sigh of relief … recognizing more needs to be done,” he said.

Botticelli, a recovering addict who speaks candidly about his history of alcohol and drug abuse, had advice for journalists.

“Stop using words like addict, junkie, and substance abuser,” he said. “Some reporters have not gotten that memo yet. We need to change our language because it has a direct impact … I knew I needed help. But I was too afraid to ask because I feared people would think me stupid, weak-willed and lacked character.”

Walsh, a self-described alcoholic, said he is opposed to an effort in Canada where safe drug injection centers have been created where street drugs can be used without the risk of arrest.

“I don’t understand the concept behind it,” he said. “Addicts became sitting ducks because drug dealers go to the areas where those safe centers are located. People I know have visited Vancouver to see these safe injection sites, and say it’s a disaster. There’s drug dealing and people shooting up in the streets.”

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