Rep. Lyons aims to fight heroin 'epidemic;' Proposes tougher sentencing laws, more funding for treatment

State Rep. Jim Lyons

The war against the heroin epidemic has been waged, and Rep. Jim Lyons, R-Andover feels he has the winning battle plan. 

“There’s two sides to fighting this,” he said. “The enforcement side and the treatment side.”

Lyons wants to increase penalties for individuals convicted of heroin distribution and give prosecutors the authority to bring manslaughter charges — which can mean sentences of 20 years to life — for overdose deaths that can be tied to dealers.

He is one of several lawmakers who returned to Beacon Hill last week motivated to address what they are saying is a growing public health crisis.

Lyons’ proposals come in the wake of a reported heroin overdose on New Year’s Day that claimed the life of a 17-year-old young woman who grew up in Andover.

“People selling this stuff to our kids should be held to a tougher standard,” he said. “People are dying, and the people selling the heroin know what they’re doing. We need to give the police and the court officials the tools to drive this epidemic into the ground.”

Lyons has also filed legislation to spend more money on substance abuse programs, which he said are woefully under-funded and don’t cover the costs.

“We need to make sure that the money is available for treatment,” he said.

Because of the limited funding, many addicts are forced to wait 30 days before getting admitted for help, he said.

“Imagine waiting 30 days to get treated for a broken ankle,” he said, “We know people are on the street who need treatment, but can’t get it because we don’t have the funding.”

Many of the dozens of bills filed, including the one by Lyons, have strong bipartisan support.

Rep. Linda Campbell, a Democrat who represents Methuen and Haverhill, wants to require hospitals and medical examiners to report fatalities from overdoses to police in a more timely manner, which she said will “facilitate more effective targeting of narcotics trafficking.”

Campbell is also sponsoring legislation with Rep. Paul Tucker, D-Salem, to update the state’s wiretapping laws to include cellphones, as part of an effort to target drug gangs and human traffickers.

The state’s wiretapping law, which dates to 1968, is among the most restrictive in the nation, law enforcement officials say. Unlike federal laws, it doesn’t allow law enforcement to get warrants to tap cellphones of suspected narcotics dealers. Their use of wiretaps are restricted to cases involving only “organized crime.”

Attorney General Maura Healey, a Democrat who was sworn into office last Wednesday, has said she will consider legal action against pharmaceutical companies to prevent the ongoing abuse of prescription painkillers that can lead to heroin addiction.

When asked why the heroin epidemic has grown out of control in the first place, Lyons had several theories. He said that while the over-prescription of painkillers and the very low cost of heroin are key factors, he also thinks it has a lot to do with over-acceptance of marijuana use.

“A lot of our kids are using marijuana at younger and younger ages,” he said. “If we traced some of the heroin overdoses back and saw what their first involvement with drug use was, I’d be interested to see the results. I definitely believe it leads to the next set of drugs.”

Massachusetts has seen a steady climb in fatal opioid overdoses in recent years, from 526 in 2010 to 863 in 2013, according to the state Department of Public Health. Figures for 2014 are not yet available, though anecdotal evidence suggests a dramatic increase.

Officials in Essex County say heroin overdose deaths more than doubled in the region last year.

As of last week, Andover Police Department had already administered Narcan, a drug meant to reverse the effects of heroin and bring someone out of an overdose, on four people in January alone. One 24-year-old girl was revived as she lay on the ground by the intersection of Interstate 495 and Route 28, believed to have just used heroin in her car.

But it was the death of 18-year-old Kelly Johnson, a former Andover resident who overdosed while at a New Year’s Eve party in town, that has brought increased attention to the growing problem in the community. Last year, three young people in their early 20s and under died of reported heroin overdoses.  

Lyons, a former neighbor of the Johnson family who was involved in a lengthy legal battle with her parents, said it’s a tragic situation.

“My thoughts and prayers go out to the Johnson family,” he said.

CNHI Statehouse reporter Christian M. Wade contributed to this report. 

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