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DA targets North Shore's drug epidemic
By Sean Corcoran
Staff writer

Law enforcement and drug treatment professionals are launching a counteroffensive against the region's growing heroin and prescription drug epidemic by increasing treatment options and hosting a series of public discussions.

District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, one of the loudest voices in a small chorus of people trying to bring attention to the area's drug problem, will team up with Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins to host a conference Jan. 13 at Merrimack College called "The Heroin/Opiate Epidemic: Raising Awareness, Accessing Resources."

Blodgett also is planning a series of region-wide community meetings, with the first set for early February at Peabody City Hall.

Yesterday Blodgett and Cousins attended an editorial board meeting at The Eagle-Tribune, the parent company of the Salem News, to talk about Essex County's heroin problem.

On the treatment front, CAB Health and Recovery Services in Danvers has received a five-year state grant worth $4.4 million to open an inpatient program for young people there. It will be the only inpatient adolescent drug treatment program in the county.

In the past 13 months, four people under the age of 21 have died of opiate overdoses in the city of Peabody alone, Blodgett said. All four were graduates of Peabody High School, and all of them played on sports teams there.

But the problem is not confined to the cities.

"Peabody has a problem, but it doesn't have any more or less than other communities," Blodgett said. "I'm going to tell you, there are kids in Lynnfield, Hamilton, Wenham, Ipswich — they're doing OxyContin, then they graduate to heroin."

OxyContin is a prescription drug commonly given to people suffering from moderate to severe pain. But overdose statistics, police and court records show that the area's young people have acquired a taste for it.

And because OxyContin is highly addictive, teenagers who start using it recreationally quickly become addicted and often desperate to raise the money — at $80 a hit — needed to sustain the habit and avoid withdrawal pains.

When OxyContin becomes either too expensive or is unavailable on the street, young addicts are turning to heroin, Blodgett said. The heroin available on the streets of Essex County is so pure that it can be sniffed. It also can cost as little as $4 a bag.

But until now, there has been no public, inpatient treatment center in Essex County for addicts under 18 years old. That will soon change.

In March, CAB will open an inpatient drug treatment center in a house on its Danvers campus. The facility will host 15 boys at a time, who will stay between 45 and 90 days.

The beds will be available for people without insurance, said Kevin Norton, CAB president and CEO, and it's possible, though not certain, that some insured people could receive treatment there as well.

The goal is not only to make treatment more readily available, but also to improve the quality, Norton said.

The program will include intensive work with the teens' families, individualized discharge plans, and weekly follow-up sessions during the first year the patients transition back into their homes and schools, Norton said.

"Sadly, we are seeing too many area teens having their life dreams derailed by drugs and alcohol," Norton said.

But Blodgett said some communities are slow to acknowledge the problem, he said.

Blodgett is hopeful the conference at Merrimack College and the subsequent public discussions will help raise awareness.

"I am going to be watching closely who shows up for this," he said.

While anyone with an interest is welcome to sign up for the Merrimack College conference, the first in a series of free community drug awareness meetings is scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 2, and Thursday, Feb. 3, at Peabody City Hall.
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