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DA: More money needed to defeat opioid epidemic

Eagle-Tribune - 2/9/2018

Feb. 09--ANDOVER -- More substance abuse counselors and more beds in drug treatment centers are needed to defeat the opioid epidemic that plagues the Merrimack Valley and the rest of America, according to Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett.

He pointed out these resources require "money, money, money ... "

Speaking to the Merrimack Valley Prevention and Substance Abuse Project at Greater Lawrence Technical School Thursday evening, Blodgett said his office stresses "compassion with accountability."

Since 2007, the Essex District Attorney's Office has offered a diversion program that allows non-violent drug offenders to seek treatment rather than go through the court system. The DA's program has a 50 percent recidivism rate, he said.

That means that half of the people who enroll in the program complete it and the charges against them are dismissed. When he first heard about the 50 percent completion rate, Blodgett said, he was disappointed.

He learned, however, that 50 percent is actually a good rate of success. Generally, only 10 percent to 15 percent of addicts remain free of drugs, he said.

Paul White, whose Preferred Laboratory in Worcester tests addicts, said a 50 percent success rate is "unbelievable."

The Essex District Attorney's Office diversion program is paid for by a grant from the state Department of Public Health.

"The funding is never definite," Blodgett said. He noted he is also trying to obtain higher salaries for the assistant district attorneys that work for him, saying they are the most underpaid people in the criminal justice system.

The challenge of providing treatment for defendants who are drug addicts is often complicated by their mental health problems, he said. Eighty percent of the people who are eligible for the diversion program have "co-occurring mental health challenges," according to Blodgett.

When a defendant is enrolled in diversion, the intake process takes three hours, he said. That's why more counselors are needed.

The Essex District Attorney's Office diversion program is run by Bridgewell Counseling Services and not by prosecutors.

"We're lawyers, not clinicians," Blodgett explained.

The district attorney, first elected to his position in 2002, offered some hope in the campaign against opioid addiction. When the diversion program began, it was available in two district courts and restricted to defendants ages 18 to 25.

Now it's available in all eight of Essex County's district courts and there's now age restriction, Blodgett said. One of the people enrolled in the program is 70.

"I understand he's doing well," the district attorney said.

Blodgett showed a short video about the diversion program. One graduate said her counselor "made me feel like I mattered."

Another graduate said diversion saved his life.

Blodgett said the program provides six months of treatment -- even if the defendant lacks medical insurance.

"We need to get these people help right away," he said. He pointed out, however, that "treatment on demand costs a lot of money."

Methuen Mayor James Jajuga introduced Liran Baron, who is working on developing a computer app that will enable a clinician to readily find a treatment center for someone who needs it. He is being assisted by William Moynihan, retired chief probation officer for the Haverhill District Court.

Roughly 100 people attended Blodgett's presentation.

"I was thrilled with the turnout," said Phil Lahey, president of the Merrimack Valley Prevention and Substance Abuse Project. More work needs to be done in the anti-opioid campaign, he said.

"The stigma (of addiction) is still alive and well," Lahey said. The Merrimack Valley Prevention and Substance Abuse Project has hosted Essex County Sheriff Kevin Coppinger and Lawrence District Court Judge Michael Brooks at past meetings.

Dr. Ruth Potee, a family physician who is board-certified in addiction medicine, is scheduled to address the group in May. She will be talking about the effects drugs have on the brain, Lahey said.

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(c)2018 The Eagle-Tribune (North Andover, Mass.)

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