Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

May 22, 2014

More help needed to fight drug addiction

The Andover Townsman

---- — The Andover Police Department last week unveiled its latest tool in fighting the drug epidemic sweeping the state: a drop box for prescription pills.

The presence of the green, steel box, which is bolted to the floor of the lobby in the Public Safety Center at 30 North Main St. is an acknowledgement that a drug problem exists here. But more important, it is a proactive effort to encourage residents to remove opiate drugs like Oxycontin from their medicine cabinets so they don’t become a gateway to heroin and a life of drug addiction.

Heroin addicts have told police that they got addicted after starting first with marijuana and alcohol, but then moving onto prescription drugs like Oxycontin. But the prescription drugs are expensive and harder to get than heroin, which is less than $10 a bag and can be easily purchased.

Unfortunately, heroin is acutely addictive and because it is unregulated, it can lead to sometimes deadly overdoses when laced with other drugs like fentanyl.

But the drop box is just one prong among several being deployed in town to tackle the problem. After a drug forum last fall on the top floor of Old Town Hall, it was clear that something needed to be done right here in Andover. Young men and women stood up in front of more than 200 people and bravely recounted how they or their friends had grappled with drug abuse, forcing them in and out of rehab, and all but destroying their lives. The mother of a Tyngsboro woman told the heartbreaking tale of how her daughter succumbed to heroin, dying of an overdose at the age of 20.

Police Chief Pat Keefe was put on the spot at the November forum, when several parents asked why Andover didn’t have a drop box for prescription drugs. He vowed to look into it. Last week, he made good on his promise and the drop box was installed, thanks to legwork by police Lt. Edward Guy.

Meanwhile, Fire Chief Mike Mansfield has led the way locally in the use of Narcan, a nasal spray that snaps heroin overdose victims back to life by restoring their breathing. Since it was put in ambulances and fire trucks in early April, it has been used at least twice to bring people back from the brink of death. A 21-year-old man was revived at the La Quinta Hotel on May 1 and a 30-year-old man was brought back to life just a few days later, after overdosing in a Main Street apartment.

Police are also being trained and should have the nasal spray kits in cruisers within a month or so. Police also offered Narcan training for families of addicts at a forum at the police station earlier this week.

Town Meeting also responded by funding a new employee for Andover Youth Services who will specialize in helping teenagers and their families dealing with drug addiction.

Even kids are getting involved.

In December, the Townsman published a letter from a group of eighth-graders at Doherty Middle School imploring the chief to install the drop box. Their plea was answered and the drop box was installed. They are getting their picture taken with Keefe this week.

While all of this is positive, it is happening seemingly without the input of the town’s elected and appointed officials. The fire chief took it upon himself to put Narcan in all of the town’s emergency vehicles. The police chief took it upon himself, at the urging of eighth-graders, perhaps, to install a drop box at the station and conduct Narcan training for citizens.

The hiring of a new town worker to deal with drug addiction issues was only accomplished after elected officials heard the outcry in the community and responded accordingly — forcing the town manager to cut his budget in other places to fund the position.

And there is much more to be done. The town needs to involve the schools and the Health Department, not to mention local hospitals and other nonprofit groups, in the fight against drug addiction.

It is understandable that drugs and addiction are difficult subjects to confront. But sticking their collective heads in the sand is no way for town officials to deal with it.