Forum will address dramatic hike in prescription drug abuse

Edgartown police chief Tony Bettencourt stands next to a prescription pill collection box installed last month in the Edgartown police station. — Photo by Steve Myrick

A coalition of public health advocates and organizations will hold a forum to raise awareness and suggest solutions for the growing problem of prescription drug abuse on Wednesday, March 21, at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. The forum begins at 5 pm.

Island health advocates call prescription drug abuse the top public health threat on Martha’s Vineyard, and local drug investigators say that crime related to prescription drug abuse occupies nearly all of their time.

Dr. Charles Reznikoff, who practices addiction medicine in Minnesota, will be the featured speaker at the forum.

Also participating will be representatives of the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, Gosnold on Cape Cod, local police, pharmacists, and the Dukes County Health Council’s Youth Task Force.

Gosnold on Cape Cod is a residential treatment facility that accepts many of the Island residents seeking treatment for prescription drug abuse.

Ray Tamasi, president of the treatment facility, will take part in the forum. He says the shift to opiate addiction, including prescription drug abuse, is dramatic. “It’s the most significant change we’ve seen in the last ten years,” Mr. Tamasi said.

At Gosnold, which treats people from across the Cape and Islands, it is clear that prescription drug abuse is a significantly larger problem on the Cape and Islands than in other parts of Massachusetts, according to Mr. Tamasi.

“In admission to acute treatment, which is essentially detox, about ten percent of the patients admitted statewide identify prescription opiates as their primary drug of dependence,” Mr. Tamasi said. “At Gosnold, that number is 29 percent. That’s a pretty significant number. Statewide, 20 percent of the patients are under 24. At Gosnold, it’s 30 percent.”

Mr. Tamasi said the number of people seeking treatment for opiate addiction has tripled in the past ten years.

Ripple effect

Until very recently, the Martha’s Vineyard Drug Task Force battled mostly heroin and cocaine abuse. Over the last two years, the task force quickly changed gears.

“Ninety percent of our focus is on prescription drug abuse right now,” Edgartown police officer Mike Snowden said. “The main reason for that is it’s a lot easier to get than heroin or other types of opiates. The drug dealers are making a lot more of a profit on these types of drugs.”

Mr. Snowden said prescription drug abuse has a crime ripple effect, which spreads across the entire Island. When the illegal pills are in short supply, police see an immediate reaction.

“When the Island dries up, we know it,” Mr. Snowden said. “The break-ins start.”

Police say some offenders need to be prosecuted and sentenced to the full extent of the law, but for many, a more lasting solution is treatment.

“Our first course of action is not to throw someone in handcuffs,” Mr. Snowden said. “We want to get these people healed. Throwing people into handcufffs, they’re gone for 24 hours, they get bailed out, and they’re going to be right back at it. If you try to help people, and try to get them into the proper rehab treatment facilities, maybe things can change.”