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New rules aim to curb drug abuse

By Meg Murphy
Globe Correspondent / August 5, 2012
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State lawmakers last week passed legislation aimed at curbing prescription drug abuse, ushering in tougher regulations designed to stem the deadly opiate epidemic that has hit families across Massachusetts — hundreds of whom lobbied for the new rules.

“We think this is an important first step,” said state Senator John Keenan, a Quincy Democrat who filed the bill in February after a year of meetings with doctors and pain specialists. “We are hopeful it is going to make a difference. It is not going to solve the epidemic, but it is a start.”

The legislation, which still has to be signed by Governor Deval Patrick, addresses widespread abuse in Massachusetts of prescription painkillers — which often spirals into addiction problems with dangerous opiates such as heroin — at a variety of levels:

Doctors will be required to sign up and use the state’s Prescription Monitoring Program, a database aimed at stopping patients from doctor-shopping for highly addictive pain medications such as Oxycontin and Vicodin. Enrollment was previously voluntary, but only 1,700 out of 40,000 prescribers statewide are currently registered.

Pharmacies and drug manufacturers will be mandated to alert local police when reporting missing controlled substances to the Drug Enforcement Administration. And when an individual under age 18 is treated for a drug or alcohol overdose at a hospital, a legal guardian must be notified and a social worker and other resources provided.

Pharmacies will be required to distribute a pamphlet produced by the Department of Public Health with each painkiller prescription filled, raising awareness about addiction risks.

A “Good Samaritan” component will provide 911 callers with significant immunity at the scene of a heroin overdose — as a means of encouraging witnesses to request life-saving assistance from authorities.

Joanne Peterson, founder of Learn to Cope, a support group for parents and family members of people battling opiate and other substance addiction with busy chapters in Brockton, Salem, Gloucester, Lowell, and Boston, said the legislation is long overdue.

“People are dying,” she said. “All we want is to see doctors held a little more accountable ­— to take that extra five minutes to look it up on a database and see if this patient is shopping for doctors.”

Norfolk District Attorney Michael W. Morrissey, the top law enforcement officer for 28 communities primarily to the south and west of Boston, says that on average about three people die every two weeks in Norfolk County alone from opiate-related overdoses. He warns parents that when young people develop an addiction to painkillers, that often leads them to heroin, because pills on the street can cost an addict $250 per day while a bag of heroin is $10.

Supporters of the new legislation say it represents a critical first step in preventing opiate addiction. One mother in Foxborough said her 22-year-old son started using painkillers last year and was addicted to heroin within three months. She said requiring doctors to use the prescription database will make a difference, as patients will be deterred from going to several doctors in search of multiple prescriptions.

Quincy resident Michael Deady, 38, said the new rules to cut down on the flow of illegal painkillers is a good thing. He said at 16, he took a Percocet offered to him by a friend at North Quincy High School and he rapidly became addicted to opiates, including heroin — a stranglehold that defined his life for 20 years. It was far too easy to get hold of prescription painkillers as a young person, he said.

“The difference in my life would have been night and day if I didn’t have access to painkillers,” said Deady, who has been in recovery for three years. “I was absent for years, in and out of people’s lives, in and out of upwards of 100 detoxes. The addiction happens so fast.”

Peterson said hundreds of the 3,000 families registered on the Learn to Cope website e-mailed or called lawmakers in support of the bill. Dozens also made in-person appeals at the State House on Monday, urging the bill’s passage.

“People were right on it. We just walked in and told our stories,” she said. “We told them this bill should be a no-brainer."

Peterson, who started Learn to Cope in 2004 after her son, since recovered, developed a heroin addiction, said the legislation should have been in place long ago. “I see it getting worse, not better,” she said of the opiate problem in Massachusetts. “From where I stand in the trenches, it is not getting better at all.”

In a recent five-year span, 3,265 Massachusetts residents died from opiate-related overdoses, according to a 2009 report from a group created by the Massachusetts Legislature, the Oxycontin and Heroin Commission. By comparison, 78 state residents died fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq during that time. Opiates, warned the report, were killing Massachusetts residents at a rate more than 40 times higher than the two wars overseas.

State Representative James Cantwell, Democrat of Marshfield, said this public health crisis has been fueled by overly lax standards on painkiller prescriptions that the new legislation will begin to correct. “I know good, strong supportive families who are in crisis because of this explosion of people taking prescription pain medication,” he said.

The bill “will go a long way in starting to address the prescription drug epidemic that our region and our state is going through,” added state Representative Mark Cusack, Democrat of Braintree.

Lawmakers said they hope to put the final bill before Patrick and signed into law sometime this month.

Meg Murphy can be reached at msmegmurphy@gmail.com.

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