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Opioid Overdose in Massachusetts

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Graphic showing data on opioid-related overdose deaths in Massachusetts in 2021

According to the Department of Public Health, the number of people who died from opioid-related overdoses in Massachusetts hit an all-time high in 2021, with 2,234 verified opioid-related overdose deaths. According to DPH, there were 42 to 71 unreported or unconfirmed deaths, bringing the total deaths to 2,290. There were 185 more opioid-related overdose deaths in 2020, representing a nearly 9 percent rise yearly.

According to statistics from DPH, the opioid-related overdose death rate in 2021 was 32.6 per 100,000 persons. The state’s opioid-related overdose mortality rate is 6.2 percent higher than what it was in 2016 and 9 percent higher than what it was in 2020.

Health officials said toxicology screenings were available for 2,119 opioid-related overdose deaths. Fentanyl was present in 93 percent of these deaths, cocaine in 51 percent, benzodiazepines in 31 percent, alcohol in 29 percent, prescription opioids in 13 percent, heroin in 10 percent, and amphetamines in 10 percent.

The Opioid Epidemic in Massachusetts

Fentanyl, which was found in 83 percent of toxicology screenings for fatal drug overdoses, was the one number substance associated with overdose deaths in 2017, according to a report by the Massachusetts DPH. Heroin, found in 43 percent of toxicology screens, came in second. It is also likely that those dying from a fentanyl overdose may have thought the substance was heroin because heroin and fentanyl are often intermixed and unknowingly combined.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), about 80 percent of individuals who abuse heroin began by using prescription opioids. Long-term and regular usage of prescription painkillers can lead to drug dependency. They can also generate a calm and desirable “high,” encouraging people to abuse them. Addiction to prescription pain relievers can lead to heroin misuse. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), over one-quarter of persons who use heroin will develop heroin addiction.

In an effort to combat heroin usage and addiction, the state of Massachusetts has taken numerous steps to reduce prescription drug abuse. The Prescription Monitoring Program (PMP), for example, is a statewide database that allows prescribers and healthcare providers to track the dispensing of controlled drugs, such as prescription opiates, to detect and prevent misuse. An Act Relative to Substance Use, Treatment, Education, and Prevention, enacts a seven-day restriction on new opioid prescriptions, mandates drug disposal programs and locations, and strengthens statewide educational and preventative efforts.

There are various prescription drop box disposal facilities around the Commonwealth where residents may dispose of prescription medications they are no longer taking to keep them from being abused and diverted for recreational use. Community-based prevention programs are also standard. The Massachusetts Opioid Abuse Prevention Coalition (MOAPC) often funds community and nonprofit coalitions.

Let’s dive into why the opioid overdose crisis has accelerated so rapidly in Massachusetts more than in other states.

Illicit Fentanyl Has Become Common in Massachusetts

Fentanyl is an opioid that may be prescribed but is often manufactured and distributed illegally. It has grown in popularity among street drug dealers, owing in large part to the fact that it is far more profitable than heroin. Unlike prescription opioids or heroin, fentanyl is usually not taken on its own; instead, it is used to increase the potency of other drugs. 

Because it is not accepted as a standalone drug, users are often unaware they are taking it, which is especially concerning given that fentanyl may be 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. Worryingly, additional synthetic drugs that are similar to and sometimes stronger than fentanyl, such as carfentanil, continue to emerge.

Fentanyl has surpassed heroin and opioid painkillers as the most common substance in opioid-related overdose deaths throughout the US. In 2016, 19,413 persons died from opioid-related overdoses containing fentanyl or other non-methadone synthetics, more than six times the number in 2013.

While fentanyl usage has grown across the country, it has been especially evident in Massachusetts. There were 1,550 fentanyl-related deaths in Massachusetts in 2016, up from 98 in 2013. This sharp increase in fentanyl use in Massachusetts explains why our opioid-related mortality rate significantly outpaces the national rate.

Compared to other states, the presence of fentanyl in Massachusetts is highlighted much more. Massachusetts has the country’s third-highest fentanyl-related mortality rate, second only to West Virginia and New Hampshire.

Drug Trafficking Routes Run Through Massachusetts

Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids are often manufactured illegally and smuggled throughout the country. Long before the opioid epidemic, there were established and commonly used drug routes in New England, with Massachusetts as one of the region’s key centers. Unfortunately, this leaves Massachusetts more exposed than other states to the present stage of the opioid epidemic, when illegal fentanyl trafficking is a significant concern.

Transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) are particularly active and well-established in the Northeast. Critically, many often have the infrastructure required to transit drugs between states and sell directly to consumers.

Today, Lawrence and Lowell are regional opioid trade epicenters, with fentanyl playing a pivotal role. In 2016, the New England Drug Enforcement Agency raided a giant heroin factory in Lawrence that was mixing heroin with fentanyl. The same year, one of the most extensive cocaine-fentanyl combinations was discovered in Methuen.

Economic Hardships of New England

For almost 50 years, the economy of New England has been severely harmed by the region’s decline in manufacturing and manual labor jobs. The 2008 financial crisis has led to significant rises in poverty, disability, and unemployment rates. According to experts, these issues are fueling a surge in drug-seeking behavior.

Prescription Opioid Use

Although Massachusetts has one of the highest opioid-related mortality rates in the country, it has one of the lowest rates of opioid prescribing. However, this does not rule out the likelihood that prescription opioids had a role in the state’s current opioid issue. High prescription rates in the early 2000s are thought to have prime the popularity of opioids. After legal supplies of opioid prescriptions were cut off, at-risk individuals may have turned to illicit heroin or fentanyl to satisfy their needs.

Heroin Use Also Plays a Key Role

Overdoses from heroin have fallen by around 5 percent in Massachusetts recently. However, after fentanyl, this illicit drug is still the second most prevalent underlying cause of opioid-related deaths.

Overdose Prevention Efforts in Massachusetts

With opioid overdoses reaching epidemic levels in the United States and the Bay State, federal, state, and municipal officials and leaders are attempting to stem the flow. Massachusetts has many laws and measures to limit overdose deaths, including Good Samaritan legislation that encourages people to report suspicious overdoses by shielding them from drug-related crimes. This law also authorizes bystanders to administer Narcan (naloxone), an overdose-reversal drug. Massachusetts has a standing order allowing pharmacists to provide opioid antagonist medication to people in need. 

By examining the DPH list of pharmacies, Massachusetts residents can locate a local pharmacy that provides naloxone through standing order.

The OEND Program trains first responders and bystanders on properly administering naloxone and where to obtain it. End Mass Overdose is a nonprofit organization that works to limit overdose deaths via policy development and implementation, as well as overdose education and prevention efforts.

In 2017, Massachusetts saw a significant increase in new HIV cases, and injectable drug use is a crucial risk factor contributing significantly to this alarming trend. There are more than 20 needle exchange programs in Massachusetts, many of which can be found through the North American Syringe Exchange Network (NASEN) listing by locality. Nonprofit and community-based providers and coalitions often administer these programs. 

Many of these initiatives, such as the Access Harm Reduction Overdose Prevention and Education (AHOPE), are issued by the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC). They not only replace dirty needles with clean ones but also give overdose prevention information, risk reduction counseling, medical care, and referrals to addiction treatment services.

Resources for Treatment of Opioid Addiction

The Bureau of Substance Addiction Programs (BSAS), which is part of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH), monitors and oversees addiction treatment services in the state. This agency licenses local providers and designs and executes prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation initiatives throughout the Commonwealth. The Massachusetts Department of Mental Health (DMH) runs 27 offices around the state, providing treatment services to individuals with mental illness, depending on where they live.

Residents of Massachusetts have access to a wide range of treatment options, both in the public and private sectors. All residents are welcome in public programs, even those without health insurance or the financial means to pay for treatment. Treatment is often prioritized for pregnant women, families, and individuals in immediate crisis. Waiting lists are standard in public programs, although private treatment facilities may be more readily available. Private programs often take health insurance and provide payment options to cover treatment costs.

Residents of Massachusetts can access local opioid addiction treatment options through the following resources:

  • Massachusetts Substance Abuse Helpline: This is an anonymous and free service for Massachusetts residents seeking information and referrals for drug misuse and addiction treatment that is operated 24/7 via phone and web-based platforms.
  • Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator: The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Providers Administration (SAMHSA) uses this nationwide tool, which gives information about local (by zip code) state-regulated treatment services by type.
  • Massachusetts DMH Resource Guide: This website provides information to residents on how to receive behavioral and mental health services in the Commonwealth.
  • Massachusetts Organization for Addiction Recovery (MOAR): As part of a statewide program, this organization supports residents in recovery and assists families and individuals in locating local treatment facilities.
  • Magnolia New Beginnings: This nonprofit organization in Massachusetts focuses on substance abuse prevention and provides educational tools and information to local families and individuals dealing with drug abuse and addiction.
  • New England Region of Narcotics Anonymous (NERNA): This recovery-support and self-help group offers private and peer-based support via a 12-Step program, with meetings hosted throughout Massachusetts.
  • Learn to Cope: This is a Massachusetts organization that supports and assists families with loved ones battling addiction.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

When did the opioid epidemic start in Massachusetts?

The first wave began in the 1990s when opioids were used to treat moderate-to-severe pain. This phase was fueled by a fourfold increase in opioid prescriptions, including oxycodone and hydrocodone, and resulted in a fourfold increase in mortality, from 3,442 in 1999 to 14,583 in 2010.

Does Massachusetts have an opioid problem?

More than 2,000 individuals died in Massachusetts from opioid overdoses in 2020, a record high. Due to prescription opioids, fentanyl, and heroin, Massachusetts is experiencing exponential growth in opioid-related overdoses, opioid overdose deaths, and persons seeking substance addiction treatment.

Overcome Opioid Addiction with The Haven Detox

Opioid use disorder (OUD) is a chronic disease that can last a lifetime. Addiction, like diabetes or heart disease, needs effective medical treatment and lifestyle adjustments. Medication may also be required to avoid cravings and maintain recovery from opioid addiction.

The Haven Detox is one of New England’s most well-known treatment centers for opioid addiction, providing medication-assisted therapy. Our team of healthcare specialists uses a variety of evidence-based treatment strategies to meet each client’s individual needs. We offer a wide range of medical services, such as detox, residential treatment, dual diagnosis, and therapies.

If you or your family member is battling opioid addiction or want further information on our treatment services, please call our medical staff at (844) 933-4145. See how we can assist you on the road to recovery.