“Lowell’s Hidden Epidemic” by Derek Mitchell

Derek Mitchell who is a candidate for Lowell City Council sent along the following Op-Ed on the topic of opioid addiction, a critically important issue in this city and across the country. (I welcome similar articles on any topic within reason by anyone, candidate or non-candidate. Just email your piece to me at DickHoweJr@gmail.com). Here’s Derek’s essay:

Lowell is suffering from an epidemic that is draining community resources and takes more lives than car accidents and shootings. No neighborhood is unaffected by what Wayne Pasanen, former Emergency Room Chief at Lowell General Hospital, calls “the most severe public health crisis in our community.” With 34 lives lost in Lowell in 2011 alone, coupled with estimates that for each fatal overdose, there are 825 additional non-medical users, we cannot afford to ignore opioid addiction.

Opioid users challenge many stereotypes about substance abusers. Statistics indicate a disproportionate amount of those addicted are tradespeople, whose habits spiral from initial, legitimate medical use related to on-the-job injuries. State Rep. Tom Golden has seen the impacts of this crisis firsthand. “The people who are affected by opioid addiction are spread throughout the entire community,” said Golden. “It is a growing epidemic that affects us all.” Golden has been an advocate at the state level to address addiction, and there is more work that we can do at the municipal level.
Opioid addiction is an issue of public health and public safety for greater Lowell. According to former Lowell Police Superintendent Ken Lavallee, “you can tie 80 to 90 percent of crime in the city–everything from petty theft and car breaks to violent crime and prostitution–back to substance abuse.” Lavallee’s assessment is consistent with a finding that the average addict commits 230 crimes per year.

Associated costs for police enforcement, legal proceedings, and property loss and damage make this an issue that affects us all. Community-wide problems require community-wide solutions. In addition to training for law enforcement officers, both police and community agencies can educate Lowell residents about early signs of addiction in family members or employees.

While early intervention is vital, prevention is even more cost-effective. Educating students about the physical effects of addiction may reduce initial use among youth. Much of this crisis is fueled by the availability of legally prescribed opioid-based pain relievers—sales of which have increased 300 percent since 1999 . The City of Lowell currently operates an unwanted pill drop-off kiosk, a program that can be expanded and for which grant funding may be a resource.

Remaining silent about opioid addiction will continue to leave us vulnerable. Focusing on prevention and early intervention now will reduce crime-related costs in the future. As individuals and as a community, we must prioritize resources to fight this epidemic.