State tax repeal revisited after report on substance abuse

The voter repeal of the state’s sales tax on alcohol has factored into efforts to fight drug abuse, some lawmakers and Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray said Tuesday, in the wake of a report detailing an epidemic of emergency rooms visits involving drug overdoses and heroin use in eastern Massachusetts.

Drug overdoses on the South Shore and the problems associated with lifetime heroin use in Worcester have reached “critical numbers,” according to Susan Servais, executive director of the Massachusetts Health Council, which released a report Tuesday detailing health trends around the state.

“The drugs are here. They are impacting our families and our friends, and it is an issue that we really need to realize that we are worse in some areas than the whole country,” Servais said after the report was released Tuesday. “So we cannot just sit back and say ‘Well, there is a drug problem everywhere.’ ”

The report’s authors hope it will serve as a reference for policy makers and health professionals as they look at the state’s progress on public health issues. “We can resolve this problem, and we are committed to doing that,” Servais said.

The report pointed out that overdose rates and deaths due to substance abuse are higher in eastern Massachusetts than any other large metropolitan area, including New York, Chicago, and Detroit. And the report noted that “contrary to the national pattern,” more Massachusetts treatment seekers in fiscal 2011 specified heroin, rather than alcohol, as the primary substance for which they were seeking treatment.

The problem is particularly pronounced in Worcester, where the city ranks as the place with the number one heroin addiction problem in the country, according to the report.

“It has been something I have seen and grappled with,” Murray, the former mayor of Worcester, told the News Service. “It is something we were aware of.”

Asked about the report Tuesday, Gov. Deval Patrick said, “As long as we have a problem and a problem of the scope that was reported on there’s more to be done, not just at the state level but at other levels of government and civic organizations and most especially in the public education that’s a part of public health. Heroin in particular is more readily available and much more potent than it has ever been and there are other narcotics, Oxycontin and so forth, that have continued to be a problem.”

Patrick added, “It’s obviously concerning and I’m sure that the public health folks in Boston and I would suspect and indeed encourage our team at the state level to see what those other cities are doing that might teach us some things.”

Sen. John Keenan, a Quincy Democrat who co-chairs the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Committee, said the report paints an accurate picture. Keenan said he sees the problem on the South Shore when he picks up the newspaper to read local obituaries.

“You look at the obituaries and you will see pictures of these young kids and it says they passed away unexpectedly,” he said, and then the obit asks people to donate to a substance abuse program in lieu of flowers.

Keenan said to continue fighting the problem, lawmakers need to make sure the prescription drug monitoring law passed this year is fully implemented, as well as make sure people have access to treatment programs.

Law enforcement officials have different theories about why Worcester is plagued with heroin addiction, ranging from its location and proximity to several highways to the relative cheap cost of heroin, said Murray who chairs the state’s interagency council on substance abuse and prevention. He said fighting drug addiction and substance abuse across the state became more challenging during the recession as state budgets tightened and program supporters fought for fewer resources.

The Legislature boosted funding to substance abuse programs in this year’s state budget by $2.4 million, bringing the total to $77.2 million. Lawmakers also restored funding to programs that went without funds during fiscal 2012, including substance abuse step-down recovery services and secure treatment facilities for opiate addiction.

Those charged with addressing the problem say prevention and abuse programs lost a big source of potential revenue when voters in 2010 repealed lawmakers’ efforts to apply the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax to alcohol purchases. Lawmakers planned to earmark roughly $100 million raised from the tax to substance abuse programs. Months after it passed, voters repealed it in a ballot initiative.

Critics of the tax said it represented double taxation on alcohol and warned of higher consumer prices.

“Losing some of that funding on alcohol has challenged our ability to do as much as we would like to and tailor programs,” Murray told the News Service.

The impact of losing the tax on alcohol is difficult to quantify, Murray said, “but it certainly hurts because you’ve got less resources in a tough economy and increasing demand.”

“Resources do make a difference in terms of getting people sober, dried out, and then on a path to recovery. It has been more challenging,” Murray said.

After the tax was repealed, Gov. Deval Patrick and other state officials said they would look at ways to address substance abuse funding needs with other revenue sources. House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s opposition to new taxes over the past few years has raised a barrier for tax hike proponents.

Vic DiGravio, whose organization Association for Behavioral Healthcare, pushed for the sales tax on alcohol, said “it is an issue that deserves to be revisited.”

DiGravio said it is difficult to say how much of the money for substance abuse programs was lost because of the repeal. Backers of the measure estimated approximately $100 million each year would be earmarked for substance abuse programs by taxing alcohol.

“We have a ton of unmet needs in Massachusetts in terms of treatment. We had a ton of unmet needs before the alcohol tax was put in place. It is still there now,” DiGravio said.

Rep. James O’Day, a Worcester Democrat who is a member of the Joint Committee on Substance Abuse and Mental Health, said it is unfortunate that voters repealed the alcohol sales tax. “We were never able to see the fruits of it. In that particular budget, we felt very confident it would have been a huge shot in the arm for things like education, for prevention,” he said.

Sen. Harriette Chandler, another Worcester lawmaker, said Tuesday that she was aware of the problem, but surprised to learn heroin addiction is a bigger problem in the city than prescription drug abuse. “I thought that was more of a problem than heroin,” she said.

Chandler said the state has “work to do” to solve the issue. “What this does is make it clear what the problem is, how great the problem is, and gives us a roadmap of what needs to be done,” she said.

Matt Murphy contributed to the reporting of this article.