Communities Combat Opioid Epidemic

John McGahan, of the Gavin Foundation for addiction recovery, gives Rebellion Staff members a tour of the Cushing Recovery House in South Boston. The Cushing House is a residential recovery home for youth facing problems with addiction.
John McGahan, of the Gavin Foundation for addiction recovery, gives Rebellion Staff members a tour of the Cushing Recovery House in South Boston. The Cushing House is a residential recovery home for youth facing problems with addiction.

By Daanya Salmanullah and Michaela Donato

Assistant Editorials Editor and Staff Writer

Police officers received a tip that a 20-year-old man had overdosed and passed out on the table of a restaurant. However, before the police officers arrived, the man had woken up and walked out of the shop. As he walked away from the pizza place, the man heard police sirens and ran, knowing that he could be punished for the two bags of heroin he was carrying. A foot pursuit quickly ensued between the officers and the young man, during which the suspect ingested his contraband, accidentally ripping open a bag on his tooth. While the officers were in a physical struggle to get the man to stop resisting arrest, the man immediately passed out due to the high opioid content in his bloodstream.

This incident happened in Walpole. In fact, opioid overdoses such as this one have become the number one cause of death in Norfolk County.

After police revived the man from Sharon with a modern nasal version of the Narcan treatment kit used to combat opioid overdoses, he returned to the police station the following day to gather his belongings. While discussing his two-year history of addiction with Walpole Police Chief John Carmichael, the Chief was prompted to offer him information regarding substance abuse and education on how to find adequate treatment options. Previously, the man’s family and friends had turned him away, and Carmichael was the first person that had tried to help him recover from his addiction.

“Everybody needs to adopt the same attitude [toward addiction and treatment], and that’s what we’re going to have to do to fix the epidemic,” said Carmichael. “And there’s a lot more work to do.”

This overdose trend began three decades ago, but is only now receiving the attention it needs because of its prominence in affluent neighborhoods. The crisis’s magnitude was further increased when Mexican cartels began providing a cheaper alternative to expensive prescriptions. Because the cartels’ product is illegal and thus unregulated, users cannot know the contents of the drugs they are using. Recently, fentanyl, now more popular because of its low production cost, has replaced pure heroin and poses a greater threat: users want a stronger effect than traditional heroin, but are unknowingly overdosing because the combination of fentanyl and heroin is 50 times more lethal than pure heroin.

In response to the growing crisis, Governor Charlie Baker passed a opioid reform bill on March 14, 2016. The Governor’s board had proposed over 60 solutions to myriad aspects of opioid-related issues: over 40 were passed in the bill. The new state legislation, propelled in large by Baker, is the most aggressive measure that has been taken to battle opioids in the country. Included in the changes, the law will mandate hospitals to administer strict evaluations to anyone who comes into the emergency room suspected of an opioid overdose; it will give patients the ability to reduce the amount of opioids they receive via prescription; and it will enable practitioners to monitor patients’ past prescriptions to prevent the development of opioid dependency and abuse. With the use of Narcan becoming more prevalent in emergency response team overdose cases, opioid users, according to Walpole police findings, have been revived from an overdose and gone on to overdose multiple times in one day.

The bill is expected to have positive impacts specifically on rehabilitation homes such as the Cushing House in South Boston. Partnered with Brendan Little, a former addict who now works in the Mayor’s Office of Recovery Services, John McGahan helps return girls to the lives they once led pre-addiction. John P. McGahan—creator of the Gavin Foundation, a group that has helped over 5,000 people recover—served on the council that created the outline for the new bill, which, in comparison to other bills, worked with more groups and foundations to cover more aspects of the drug crisis in Massachusetts.

The biggest effect for the Cushing House and hundreds of rehabilitation homes like it around the state was the certification of sober homes. These homes provide a transition between the full-rehabilitation process and normal living. By giving each sober home certification, the government is ensuring that people who have dedicated years to being sober are in a comfortable, temptation-free environment.

Ultimately, the bill changes the concept of addiction from a crime to a disease.

One resident, whose name is confidential due to policies within the Cushing House, shared her first-hand experience with opioid abuse: “It doesn’t matter how you’re brought up, this disease does not discriminate.”

The resident and others in the facility wish to portray how opioid addiction does not start at heroin or oxycontin, but instead manifests from alcohol or marijuana. According to McGahan’s findings, 99 percent of opioid users started with just alcohol and marijuana as teenagers. McGahan also believes that modern technology has tied together affluent suburbs and the heroin epidemic to increase the outreach of such harmful substances.

“Walpole is a microcosm of everything [opioid-related] that is happening in the country, and that can be broken down into what is happening in New England, in Massachusetts, and in Norfolk County,” said Walpole Police Chief John Carmichael.

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