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Heroin remains top drug concern in Boston, despite recent focus on 'Molly'

Posted by boston.com  November 14, 2013 12:12 PM

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Despite increased attention on the designer hallucinogenic drug Molly, including the high-profile arrest of a Dorchester resident in September, neighborhood leaders say their focus is on combatting heroin abuse, which remains a larger concern.

City Councilor Tito Jackson, who represents Roxbury and parts of Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, the South End and Fenway, said that while the rise in the use of Molly is worrisome, he is more concerned about the issue of heroin addiction. He said a tenants’ organization had brought concerns about the use of Molly to him last summer, but that he had heard relatively little about the problem at the time.

Instead, he said, he has been worried about a rise in a potent form of heroin known by the street name ‘fire.’ He said he has ongoing concerns about residents using heroin and opioid-based painkillers as a way of coping with problems such as crime, poverty and unemployment.

“It’s important that we continue to raise awareness of the increase in the overdoses of heroin and opioid painkillers like oxycodone and Percocet,” Jackson said.

In September, Dorchester resident Jeffrey Chasen, 28, was among a group of eight people arrested for distribution of Molly at the venue Ocean Club at Marina Bay in Quincy, which saw 12 Molly overdoses from Memorial Day through Labor Day weekend.

Ecstasy-type drugs like Molly accounted for only 1 percent of all substance abuse cases in the city, according to the Boston Public Health Commission’s 2011 report on substance abuse, with deaths rare when compared to heroin and opioid overdose.

Bradley Levy, a therapist and addiction-treatment coordinator at the Dorchester House Multi-Service Center, said that hallucinogens such as Molly are getting a lot of publicity lately, but were more of a concern during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Levy, who works with clients from the Dorchester area, said he has yet to see a patient addicted to Molly or similar drugs.

Of his casework of six to eight patients per day, Levy said, addicts from Dorchester usually struggle with alcoholism or addiction to opioid substances, like heroin.

“Heroin has devastated the state, city, and [Dorchester] area,” Levy said. “Everyone has noticed an epidemic in heroin overdoses and heroin addiction.”

Reports show that heroin abuse remains a significant problem in Boston. The BPHC’s substance abuse report showed that more than 50 percent of patients admitted to substance abuse treatment in 2010 cited heroin as their primary drug of choice.

Last July, a sudden spike in drug overdose deaths in Boston had health officials concerned that an adulterated batch of heroin or a similarly powerful illicit narcotic was being sold on city streets. Five people died of suspected opiate overdoses in July, the BPHC reported.

With the creation of the Massachusetts Opioid Abuse Prevention Collaborative Program this past June, the BPHC is one of a number of agencies in the state to receive a seven-year grant specifically designed to support opioid-prevention initiatives in various communities.

The BPHC’s programs and planning director, Devin Larkin, said that during the first nine months of the grant, BPHC will gather quantitative data, including death records, and qualitative data, such as focus group assessments, in order to identify which areas of Boston are in need of prevention initiatives. The information will be collected with the help of neighborhood substance abuse coalitions, health centers, treatment providers, and active users.

Larkin said gathering information in the sprawling community of Dorchester will be challenging, due to its size and diversity.

“We’ll have to make sure that stakeholders within different cultural groups are all included in this assessment,” she said. The BPHC already works with neighborhood groups on other drug-prevention initiatives.

Ryan Ribeiro, director of innovation and community health at Harbor Health Services on Morton Street, part of the Dorchester Substance Abuse Coalition, said he has noticed a recent increase in the use of heroin, possibly because it is easier to access and cheaper to buy than prescription painkillers, which are heavily regulated. He also noted an increase in cases of Hepatitis C, which is related to the needle use of drugs.

The city’s substance abuse report found that South Dorchester had the second highest number of reported cases of Hepatitis C in 2010. Of a population of 43,870, there was a rate of 328 cases reported per 100,000 residents; Boston overall had a rate of 181 cases of Hepatitis C per 100,000 people. A new report by the health department, Health of Boston, found that the average annual rate for Hepatitis C cases in South Dorchester was 70 per 100,000 residents ages 15-25 – higher than the city’s rate of 46 per 100,000.

Citywide initiatives like the Addicts Health Opportunity Prevention Education program (AHOPE) aim to reduce the spread of Hepatitis C and HIV among heroin users by providing them with clean needles and by educating users on how to be safe while using. Dorchester residents can access AHOPE, a mobile van service, on Fridays at Upham’s Corner.

Levy said heroin users have trouble accessing treatment for their addiction because the system is complex and overburdened. With few inpatient beds available for detox and treatment services, and insurance obstacles, “The risk goes up each day,” he said.

This article was reported and written under the supervision of Northeastern University journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel, as part of a collaboration with The Boston Globe.

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