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Opioid Overdoses In Eastern Mass. Highest In Nation

BOSTON — Eastern Massachusetts had the highest rate of emergency room visits involving illicit drugs of any metropolitan region in the United States in 2011, according to a recent report (PDF) by the Massachusetts Health Council. The report also showed that heroin, potent and easily accessible, is a big part of the problem.

Heroin Addiction 

Twenty-two-year-old Katie Johansen was smart, attractive and loved socializing, says her mother Mary Johansen. And she was addicted to heroin.

On the porch of her home in Weymouth, Mary Johansen looks at a photo collage of her daughter Katie, who died of a heroin overdose at the age of 22. (Monica Brady-Myerov/WBUR)

On the porch of her home in Weymouth, Mary Johansen looks at a photo collage of her daughter Katie, who died of a heroin overdose at the age of 22. (Monica Brady-Myerov/WBUR)

“Nobody could forget Katie. Even the things that she did wrong would make you laugh,” Mary said. ”That drug just took everything that she could be positively out of her.”

Mary, who’s originally from England, remembers how she fought Katie over her addiction. She threw her out of the house many times and made her stay overnight in jail when she called asking to be bailed out. She went to court and had Katie committed to a drug treatment program for 30 days and supported Katie when she went to detox.

But Katie, who dropped out of high school and worked part-time jobs, always came back home, promising to quit heroin. The night before she died two weeks ago, Katie told her mother she was ready to start taking a medication: a shot that would make her violently ill if she used heroin.

“She said to me, ‘Mom, I love you,’ ” Mary recalled. “We talked every day about giving up this thing.”

But Mary recalls being skeptical. “I said, ‘Oh yeah, sure Katie. You know what, actions speak louder than words.’ ”

On her way upstairs Mary remembers Katie saying, “I’m going to show you, Mom.”

Mary thinks Katie was high at the time and that she went upstairs to her room to shoot more heroin.

“That’s how they found her the next morning. She fell backwards with the needle still in her arm,” Mary said.

Eastern Mass. Particularly Hard Hit 

Katie Johansen’s death is surprisingly common in parts of Massachusetts. On the South Shore, someone dies of an overdose every eight days.

Last year was the first year the nonprofit Massachusetts Health Council tracked opiate overdoses in the region as compared to other parts of the country.

“We are actually the top state in the country for overdoses, for opiate overdoses,” said Susan Servais, executive director of the Massachusetts Health Council.

The problem is most acute in Worcester, where lifetime use of heroin is twice the state average. The report doesn’t look at why, but those in the substance abuse field say the problem stems in part from doctors over-prescribing opiates for pain, often for simple procedures. The patients themselves can become addicted or the pills can be stolen from medicine cabinets and passed around. When someone becomes addicted to pain pills, heroin can be an easy jump because it’s cheaper.

“The epidemic continues to grow because the prescriptions are so available out there,” said Joanne Peterson, who runs the network of support groups called Learn To Cope.

“There are so many factors,” Peterson said. “There is over-prescribing, there is diversion. And there’s more and more opiate pills being flooded out into the market by pharmaceutical companies that continue to put them out there.”

Peterson also blames a medical culture that believes no one should feel pain.

Legislators Work To Address The Problem 

Last summer, lawmakers passed a law mandating that all doctors prescribing highly addictive painkillers must check a statewide database to see if their patients have been prescribed similar medications.

Sen. John Keenan, D-Quincy, chair of the Joint Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse, says the new requirement will eventually decrease the number of prescription painkillers available, which could slow demand for heroin.

“One of the goals of the legislation is to prevent people from going down the path of dependence and addiction,” Keenan said. “So that if I am legitimately hurt and I am prescribed prescription painkillers, that I won’t be able to doctor shop or that the physician I’m dealing with will have a better understanding of my prescription history.”

The law also has a Good Samaritan provision to encourage more people to call for help without fear or prosecution when someone overdoses. In addition, the state says there’s hope in the drug naloxone, which immediately reverses the effects of an overdose. In the last five years, 1,700 people have had their overdoses reversed. It can save lives, but it doesn’t stop addiction.

People are still dying from heroin and Mary Johansen wants more people to know about the problem.

“I said to the police officer, ‘You know, if I had my way I’d ask the Patriot Ledger to put on the front page headline: Katie Johansen died today, another victim of heroin,’ ” Mary said.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/wendylwilliamsboston Wendy Langlois Williams

    I would like to send this link so that someone can hear the story again… is it posted as an audio file yet?

    • http://www.wbur.org/people/abby-elizabeth-conway Abby Elizabeth Conway

      Hi Wendy — The audio bar at the top should be published now.

      -Abby, WBUR

  • Deeply Saddened

    There is SO much heroin here. Walking around the town of Uxbridge I’ve seen 6, 7 needles on the sidewalk in the last year or so. Parked at Wholefoods Providence, I get out of my car, look down- there are 3 needles on the ground. I have a dear young smart, beautiful, troubled friend. She’s so addicted, was in prison for 5 or 6 months, mostly from violating probation by using again the first time around. Within a month of getting out, she jumped out of rehab where she was hanging on, not wanting to live that life again. Now she’s shooting up, large amounts. I know she’s going to end up dead.

    • ccadogan

      I know what you mean, my son just overdosed in his freshman year at college and I am devastated. I wish I had known how easy it was and how available! I wish I could have saved him, but the addiction is just the worst…

      • Tom_Goodwin

        I know I can’t really say anything to you. Heroin is in a class by itself, I think- the level of addiction surpasses everything else. Combined with its increased potency and decreased price….

  • lbeletsky

    Thanks for this great piece especially because it features the human stories and celebrates the work that Learn to Cope and others are doing to raise awareness about this important issue.

    One thing that bears highlighting is the connection between prescription drug addiction and initiation into heroin use. Research now suggests that about 40% of new heroin injectors initiate this habit through prescription drug misuse and that many people use both heroin and prescription painkillers interchangeably. This is important because focusing overdose prevention and response too narrowly on limiting access to prescription drugs without retaining people who abuse these medications in drug treatment, counseling, etc. can actually cause more harm than good. For example, simple refusal by treating providers to prescribe certain medications based on suspicion of abuse can and evidently does push patients out of the healthcare setting into injecting heroin, which is widely available on the black market and carries a number of serious health risks beyond addiction and overdose, saying nothing of the possible legal repercussions.

    This is not to say that we shouldn’t try to identify and address inappropriate prescribing practices, but the answer requires a coordinated, comprehensive approach designed to avoid these well-documented unintended consequences. Given our society’s decades-long experience trying to eliminate the clandestine supplies of heroin, there are no easy answers.

  • Wench

    “Peterson also blames a medical culture that believes no one should feel pain.”

    I’m going to guess that Ms. Peterson hasn’t experienced significant or chronic pain in her life. I’m guessing that because a remark like this shows a very striking lack of empathy and understanding for the actual effects of pain on people’s lives.

    Leaving that aside, however, no matter how much drugs are locked up, no matter how many penalties we impose on individuals for using drugs we think are less moral than others, no matter how much we say that they shouldn’t be prescribed, people will always abuse drugs until we change the system that drives them to do it. People don’t abuse drugs just because they’re available. They use drugs to feel better. They use them to escape the hell that is their life. They use them to get through the day. Until we change our society, that says that people should suffer, that people deserve to be poor, that people don’t deserve food, healthcare or shelter, that people deserve to be treated worse than animals because someone’s moral judgment says so, people are going to use and abuse drugs.

    Locking up the drugs is the wrong target.

    • Freedomist617

      Well said. I am a recovering addict, sober for 5 years now. I am currently enrolled in college to get my degree as a drug and alcohol counselor. These people need help. I had a great team of proffesionals that worked with me and really made a difference in my life. That stuff is poison. It’s a trap and its no coincidence that heroin addiction multiplied after our government went to Afghanistan and took control of the poppy fields. Hell heroin is just as profitable as oil. I hope to make a difference one day and to spare someone, their families, and their children a life of pain. This is an epidemic and you hit the nail on the head. People think they have nothing to live for anymore. People need better options for jobs. All the manufacturing jobs have left for overseas while rich eliteists, banks, and pharmaceutical companies profit off the misfortunes of others.

  • Neil Dootson

    I lost my wife to this disease I know how viscious it is , I’m a recovering addict , been clean 4.5 yrs, I also work in the field what is sad is when you see someone come in for help , you find them a good halfway house to go to , they are ready to change only to have their insurance company say they wont give you the additional time you need to get the kid to the next stop, no money, no treatment he discharges back to the street and the process starts over maybe he makes it back, maybe he dies, so sad

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