It’s almost hard to believe that this situation can be described as “under-the-radar”, despite Governor Deval Patrick declaring a state of emergency in March of 2014. A little over a year later, things have only gotten worse in Massachusetts and parts of New England. The problem is that very few people want to talk about it or acknowledge what is happening, but as the situation evolves from state of emergency to epidemic, it’s time to address the very real, very scary, and very powerful effects of heroin addiction.
There were 185 recorded deaths from heroin overdoses in Massachusetts from November 2013 through February 2014, which prompted the governor to call a state of emergency the following month. These statistics do not even reflect the state’s three biggest cities – Worcester, Boston, and Springfield – which track their own statistics separately. This number also includes only police reported situations, and is therefore likely undercounted. After a decline during the summer, reported heroin overdoses reached record rates at the end of the year, including a mind-blowing 114 in December alone. This brought the 2014 total to nearly 1000 deaths in the state of Massachusetts, leaving many experts who work in substance abuse programs feeling shocked and overwhelmed. The first 3 months of 2015 have already seen 217 suspected overdoses in the state.
It is worth noting at this point what exactly makes heroin so deadly. The brain has opiate receptors, which are meant for endorphins that are produced naturally by the body. Heroin’s main ingedient is morphine, which acts in the same way as endorphins but is much more powerful and can overload the brain’s opiate receptors. In addition, this leads to a release of dopamine which is what causes the sensation of feeling pleasure. Heroin is highly addictive, so the user develops a tolerance very quickly and needs stronger doses. Eventually, the body cannot keep up with the amount of heroin in its system which leads to overdosing and eventually death. Matters become more complicated when heroin that is being manufactured is not strictly heroin. One of the main reasons behind the recent spike in deaths was the discovery that heroin was being laced with Fentanyl, a pain killer 100 times more powerful than morphine.
After Patrick declared the state of emergency, the primary focus was on training all police on how to administer Narcan, a drug that reverses the effects of opiate overdoses by blocking the opiate receptors in the brain. Narcan has been responsible for saving hundreds of lives during the past year. The problem is that now heroin is killing people within minutes instead of hours, partly due to the fact that it is being laced with other substances such as Fentanyl. Newly elected governor Charlie Baker has vowed to make the opiate crisis one of his primary focuses as governor of Massachusetts. Politicians, police, and medical experts in the state have been working tirelessly to combat this problem. The problem remaining is not that people aren’t aware of it or that those in charge aren’t doing enough, it’s the perception from everyday people that doing the most harm.
What many people don’t realize is that the opiate addiction crisis is now invading all areas of society. It is not just subdued in a poor area where homeless people or those living in poverty are the only ones addicted. It is affecting young and old, lower middle and upper class, and very likely someone in your own neighborhood. I’ve personally known and worked with someone who died from a heroin overdose in my town, and I’ve talked to others that are recovering heroin addicts. These people are just as normal as the ones who are not addicted, but they are too ashamed or scared to ask for help. They are afraid of the stigma that comes with drug addiction.
It’s very easy to get people to support something like cancer research, but heroin and opiate addiction is just as much of a real, deadly disease and should be treated with the same type of urgency. It is not only a problem in Massachusetts, either. I would urge everyone to do their part in spreading awareness, and to do so before this monster affects someone in your personal life, not after.