LYNN — To City Councilor-at-Large Brian Field, the opioid crisis is not just a public health problem, it’s personal.
The 42-year-old first-term councilor told a packed “Opioid Addiction” forum at City Hall Tuesday night he successfully fought his addiction to Vicodin, a narcotic painkiller, following surgery to remove four impacted wisdom teeth more than 20 years ago.
“My doctor prescribed one pill every six hours and it was later increased to extra strength every four hours,” he said. “After three months on those drugs, I recognized I was addicted to this drug and stopped using them.”
Field, who acknowledged others face a far more difficult struggle getting free of opioids, offered his story as the city is seeing a slight drop in overdoses and deaths in the first quarter of 2018, according to the Lynn Police Dept.
From January through March, there have been an average of 4.3 deaths per month in Lynn, down from 5.6 per month in 2017. Overall, overdoses have fallen to about 30 per month so far this year, compared to 41 per month in 2017.
Still, Lynn is among the Top 5 communities when it comes to opioid deaths. Only Boston, Lowell, Fall River, and New Bedford had more, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
The panelists included Patrick Byrne, a street advocate, Dr. Kiame Mahaniah, CEO of Lynn Community Health Center, Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, Lynn Police Chief Michael Mageary, Essex County Sheriff Kevin Coppinger, and Wendy Kent, director of behavioral health and prevention at Bridgewell, a nonprofit whose mission is to guide people with challenges to achieve a high quality of life.
Byrne, whose son died from an overdose in 2014, said addiction is a cry for help. For years he kept asking himself what he did wrong, he said, and dealt with the shame associated with being the parent of an addict.
“It’s so unfair to parents,” he said. “I tried everything from total love to tough love, none of it worked. I’m just so glad that when I saw my son on the day he died my last words to him was ‘I love you.'”
Blodgett discussed his office’s Drug Diversion Program which promotes treatment instead of jail for substance abusers.
“For years, we were dealing with this issue in a Band-Aid approach,” he said. “Then, we partnered with Bridgewell to focus on treatment instead of prosecution.”
Under the terms of the program, if the person completes a six-month treatment plan, their drug case is dismissed. Since it started, 900 people have graduated, Blodgett said.
Coppinger said the opioid epidemic is not going away and it impacts everyone. His office’s approach includes prevention, putting drug dealers behind bars, and treatment and rehab.
“Of the 1,500 inmates in our jail, 75 percent have some kind of substance abuse problem,” he said. “We offer a 28-day program with 42 beds.”
Since 2015, the men’s program has had an 87 percent success rate, Coppinger said, with 1,150 of 1,329 inmates getting drug-free. In the program for women, 454 of 565, or 80 percent were successful.
Mahaniah posed questions much of the public wonders about. Why do people take drugs and why is it so hard to quit?
He said the high from heroin, for example, is more powerful than an orgasm. On why it’s so hard to quit, the drug changes your brain, he said, and only intense treatment can turn it around.
Kent noted when she began in the treatment business in 1980, most of the issues were related to alcohol and cocaine. Today, she said, there’s an explosion of heroin and prescription drug abuse.
“This is a community-based problem that needs to be addressed by all sectors of the city, not just law enforcement and treatment centers,” she said.
Mageary said the two officers in the department’s Behavior Health Unit keep people with mental illness and substance abuse problems out of jail.
“Our focus is getting them into treatment which is a far better solution,” he said.