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Drug addiction must be treated as a disease and the country can't arrest its way out of a heroin and prescription drug epidemic, White House Drug Policy Director Gil Kerlikowske said Monday as officials gathered to discuss a recent spike in heroin overdoses in Taunton.
Kerlikowske and Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., joined local officials and first-responders at the Taunton Central Fire Station to discuss how to tackle the uptick in drug overdoses.
Since January there have been more than 64 heroin overdoses and five deaths in Taunton, including two overdoses Monday morning. According to Taunton Police Chief Edward James Walsh, affordability and accessibility of the drugs is at the root of this recent surge.
Kerlikowske said the epidemic needs to be attacked through education and public health policy. He said that putting users behind bars doesn't address the underlying problem of addiction.
Officials said more preventative care, access to better and affordable treatments and the distribution of naloxone, a lifesaving overdose reversal drug, would better address the problem.
As of last week, naloxone is available on every fire truck in the state.
Chris Herren, a former Boston Celtics player and ex-drug addict, told the meeting that naloxone saved his life when he overdosed on heroin in 2008. Herren was found in his car after crashing into a fence and was given naloxone by first-responders.
Susan Cyr, of Raynham, Mass., lost her son Eric, 32, to a heroin overdose last month after he battled addiction for five years.
"It's gotta stop," Cyr said. "I know where these drug dealers live. I want to just knock on their doors and ask them how they would like it if I was dealing their children drugs?"
Officials said this problem stretches beyond state borders. According to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention, prescription drug and heroin fatalities in the U.S. have surpassed homicide and traffic deaths. In 2010, more than 16,600 Americans died from prescription painkillers and about 3,000 died from heroin.
Cory Palazzi, 25, who was a National Honors Society student and varsity baseball and football player at Taunton High School, overdosed on heroin last July. Palazzi has lost motor skill movement in his hands and is now officially blind.
His mother, Lori Gonsalves, said better access to long-care treatment could have prevented her son from relapsing.
"Cory who loved to throw a baseball, cannot even hold one," Gonsalves said, fighting back tears. "His life will never be the same."