The Salem News
---- — Heroin is destroying lives here in Essex County, and more and more residents and officials are openly acknowledging that fact and searching for ways to confront the scourge.
On Tuesday, state Sen. Kathleen O’Connor Ives convened a field hearing on the issue in Methuen by the state Senate’s Special Committee on Drug Abuse and Treatment Options.
The head of the panel, state Sen. Jennifer Flanagan later toured the Maris Center in Salisbury, which is offering some hope for drug-addicted women who turned to crime to feed their habits.
Maris House could serve as a model for some of the treatment options for which the Senate panel is searching.
The hearing in Methuen brought together members of the special panel and those whose lives have been touched by the heroin plague — from parents of addicts and recovering addicts to people in health care, law enforcement, education and drug treatment who must deal with the consequences of addiction virtually every day.
There was a remarkable consensus among those who spoke about the problem we face and what we must do in response.
They told the Senate panelists that our institutions were ill prepared for the tsunami of opiate addiction and were overwhelmed by it.
But they said the answer is not yet another “crackdown” on heroin.
Methuen police Chief Joseph Solomon said his community is on pace to record 80 overdoses this year, up from 35 a year ago. Some will be fatal.
Methuen can also expect 450 heroin-related arrests this year, almost double last year’s total.
But he said, “We can’t arrest our way out of addiction.”
The first step is to admit the problem. Solomon told how his own world has been touched in a heartbreaking way, with the overdose death of a close relative, a 30-year-old woman who left three children and was pregnant with a fourth.
“We have to talk about it so everyone knows its OK to talk about,” he said.
Also testifying were Newburyport City Marshal Thomas Howard, Salisbury police Chief Thomas Fowler and Amesbury police Lt. William Scholtz.
Speakers also agreed that so-called Section 35 commitments — which allow desperate parents to commit their children to jail in hopes they will get help there — are not the answer. Such commitments have spiked over the last year.
No, speakers agreed, what we need is treatment, treatment and more treatment, and the money to pay for it.
Addicts who overdose may be held for detoxification to get opiates out of their systems in the short term. But after that, there are few options for the medium-term, and that’s when many addicts become lost again.
Phil Lahey, a Methuen father of a recovering addict, vividly described the detox system’s shortcomings.
“After the five-day spin, we’re stuck again,” he said.
O’Connor Ives, whose district stretches from Methuen to Newburyport and Salisbury, deserves tremendous credit for convening this forum to call attention to the epidemic of opiate addiction ravaging the Merrimack Valley and to talk about the way forward.
And there will be a way forward, she said. This panel has no intention of producing yet another forgotten legislative study.
“There will be action,” O’Connor Ives promised.
There are many families who pray she is right, and for that, she will deserve our gratitude.