Pubdate: Sat, 25 Jun 2011
Source: Patriot Ledger, The  (Quincy, MA)
Copyright: 2011 GateHouse Media, Inc.
Author: Jack Encarnacao, The Patriot Ledger



QUINCY - They're about about evenly split between men and women. More
than 80 percent are over 30; the median age is 41. About a quarter of
the men work trade union jobs or in construction. The women are likely
to be homemakers, secretaries or workers in the medical field.

They are the 99 people who died of drug overdoses in the past two
years in Quincy, Braintree and Weymouth, largely from opiates like
heroin and oxycodone, the pricey prescription painkiller most cited as
the gateway drug to heroin.

A Patriot Ledger review of five years of Quincy death certificates and
three years' worth in Braintree and Weymouth support a view long put
forth by those involved in drug treatment, public health, medicine and
law enforcement: The local epidemic of addiction to heroin and other
opiates does not discriminate on the basis of age, sex or lot in life.

The data jibes with the perspective of Alejandro Rivera, who directs
Impact Quincy, a program of the nonprofit Bay State Community Services

"When we started with the program, very often people were saying it's
only a problem for people with somehow a lower socioeconomic level or
people without housing," Rivera said. "Then when you see all of this,
it's just not accurate. You cannot say: 'This is the profile of
somebody (with an opiate addiction).' No, absolutely not."

Bay State's focus gradually shifted from its original target -
underage drinking - to drugs. Three years ago, it trained its
resources on opiates after statistics released by the state Department
of Public Health showed high levels of opiate abuse admissions into
emergency rooms and treatment programs in Quincy and other South Shore

Three years in, local public health and drug treatment officials have
a more full-bodied understanding of the opiate problem's complexity,
as well as more formal action plans and data-gathering.

Quincy police, the first department in the state to carry
overdose-reversing Narcan spray in their cruisers, began keeping
comprehensive statistics this year on the overdose calls to which they
respond. For the past two years, Quincy has hosted an opiate
conference that brought together officials, counselors and experts to
discuss the problem. Learn to Cope, a support group for relatives of
addicts, will open a Quincy chapter this fall.

It's not an easy problem to isolate, as evidenced by local death
certificates. They paint a complex, largely inconsistent picture of a
person who dies of an overdose.

A 45-year-old man who worked for the Department of Homeland Security
died from overdosing on hydrocodone, a pain reliever. A funeral
director in his 30s died at South Shore Hospital, succumbing to a
cocktail of opiates and a psychoactive drug. A 23-year-old student
died in an apartment from overdosing on methadone, a drug administered
to heroin users to help them function.

Among male overdose victims, one recurring occupation field is
construction and the trade unions. Forty percent of men who died in
Quincy of a drug overdose from 2006 to 2011 worked as a tradesman,
laborer or in a construction job, The Patriot Ledger's review found.

Jay Hurley, president of the New England Ironworkers' Council and the
former business manager of South Boston-based Local 7, which covers
Quincy, said young people looking to enter the union's apprentice
program are often felled by drug problems.

"Six out of every 10 kids who sign up for our apprentice program never
make it out the other end; a preponderance of them are just basically
because of drug and alcohol abuse," he said. "Some of the most
talented kids imaginable have got the demon, and there's nothing we
can do about it."

Starting in September, Local 7 will implement mandatory, random drug
and alcohol testing for all members after the union voted to add the
program last year. Failures will result in 30-day suspensions from
work on the first offense, 90 days on the second, and a year for a

"Our guys are tired of working on jobs where guys are messed up,"
Hurley said.

Local 7 has an alliance with Modern Assistance Programs of Quincy,
which provides inpatient and outpatient treatment and assesses
ironworkers who are suspected of having a drug problem. The carpenters
union has an assistance program that connects members with drug
problems with a liaison who can steer them to counseling.

While publicized police activity involving heroin and other opiates
tends to involve young people, local statistics indicate that overdose
deaths start happening with greater consistency when users pass their
30th birthday.

In 2009 and 2010, the median age among people who died from a drug
overdose in Weymouth, Braintree or Quincy was 41. The median age is
the one that appears in the middle when the age of each victim is
listed from youngest to oldest. The average age of those overdose
victims is 39.

Andrew Scheele, Quincy's public health commissioner, said people who
die of heroin overdoses skew older because many are coming back to
heroin after a stint in a sober house or in jail.

Scheele gave this hypothetical example, with a tone of familiarity: A
heroin addict goes to jail after having worked up a tolerance to two
bags of heroin a day.

"Now, out of jail after 18 months, he thinks he needs that two, when
all he needed was a $5 bag. Now his body's not used to that huge
influx of heroin, and it puts him right over the edge."

By "over the edge," Scheele means dead. 
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