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Greenfield’s Heroin Epidemic
Heyi Jiang '15 Senior Writer
December 17, 2014

Recently in the Emmy Award-winning CNN series Parts Unknown, the town of Greenfield stepped into the limelight. East of the Deerfield River and west of the Connecticut River, Greenfield—the county seat of Franklin County—is nestled in a bucolic setting with historic villages, artistic enclaves and rich culture. Roughly 3.6 miles from Deerfield Academy, the city is not an unfamiliar place for the Academy’s student body: it has been a much-frequented spot for errands, movies and food.

RogersMost students find Greenfield a sparsely populated and peaceful, even slightly eventless, place. Yet, as reflected by Parts Unknown, beneath the smooth surface of daily life observed by bystanders, roots of problems run deep. While Parts Unknown invites its audience into “incredible adventures,” the problems in Greenfield right now are almost unbelievable to many people.

Parts Unknown described Greenfield’s social disturbances with a focus on the city’s heroin problems. An undercover detective from the Greenfield Police Department estimated that the number of heroin addicts in Greenfield has reached “high hundreds,” and a dealer-turned informant revealed that his clients consisted of “practically all of Greenfield” and primarily “kids.”

In Greenfield, according to Chief Trial Counsel Jeremy Bucci, spouse of Deerfield College Advisor Jamie Bucci, it appears that no demographic group is spared from heroin addiction. Parts Unknown also revealed that heroin problems have moved from urban settings into suburban neighborhoods, transforming from criminal-justice issues faced by minority groups to “public health [crises].”

The war on drugs—not just in Greenfield—has reached a whole new level. What exactly aggravated the state of drug problems in Greenfield, on the other hand, is highly complicated, with factors involving the medical sector, poverty, depression among youths and other issues.

At the very center of Greenfield’s drug problems lies the “opioid.” Mr. Bucci explained, “A recent study indicates that 80% of heroin users began by abusing prescription opioids. Opioids, an example of which would be OxyContin, are the motivating force behind almost every armed and unarmed robbery, larceny, and breaking and entering in our area.”

Prior to the 1990s, opioids were only prescribed to terminally ill patients suffering from extreme pain. According to Mr. Bucci, opioids are not a far cry from heroin, as the death rate of patients under opioid medications is similar to that of heroin addicts. Indeed, prescription opioids function in the exact same way as heroin, which technically rewires one’s brain and causes serious, even fatal, damage to the nervous system. The addiction rate of prescription opioids is estimated to be 25 to 30 percent—which means that one in four patients on the prescription will become physically addicted to the painkiller.

However, through the 1990s, opioids became a default prescription for pain management. Now heroin problems afflict many in Greenfield. “This epidemic,” Mr. Bucci said, “is traceable to the pharmaceutical companies’ promotion of opioids as a safe way to manage pain with low incidents of addiction and a simultaneous push by patient advocacy groups and medical professionals to address pain as a vital sign in the 1990s.”

“Opioids are being more widely distributed by doctors than ever before,” Mr. Bucci continued. “Doctors are being graded on their pain management for patients.”

When the supply of opioids is exhausted at the end of a prescription cycle or at the point where doctors start to notice signs of addiction in their patients, the patients, already opioid addicts themselves, will often turn to heroin.

In Greenfield, the demographic group most susceptible to this downward spiral consists of those under the age of 25. In some cases, opioids are used as the default painkillers for sports injuries, and such cases are complicated by the symptomatic lack of impulse control among youths.

“Addiction specialists have often commented to me,” Mr. Bucci said, “that while they have the most success in treatment of addiction in those patients that come to them through the criminal justice system, treatment of young addicts is the most difficult and unsuccessful across the spectrum.”

Sheriff Christopher Donelan, also co-chair of the Opioid Task Force of Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region, offered a different aspect of the story. “We have found more and more young people suffering from depression and or anxiety without a diagnosis,” Donelan explained. “They experience peace and euphoria when snorting pain pills or heroin. They cannot give up feeling this peace, so use increases and addiction soon follows.”

According to Sheriff Donelan, poverty figures in the case of young addicts turning to “easy money.” Some of them become drug dealers as heroin is less expensive in Greenfield—which happens to be located along a major trafficking route from New York to Connecticut and then to Vermont, making it a desirable location for dealers.

Undoubtedly, the consequences of heroin addiction do not stop at drug trafficking. Crime is often chosen by addicts as the most viable means to support their addiction.

“Heroin addiction leads to petty crimes,” Mr. Donelan explained, citing “breaking into cars, breaking into homes, stealing from a relative’s savings account, stealing checks from a parent.” And, he added, “When the crimes are within a family, there is great stress and breakdown within that family unit. There is also a sense of violation within a community when someone breaks into a car or home to steal cash or prescription drugs.”

So, widespread heroin addiction incurs considerable human and economic costs throughout a region. Mr. Bucci went on to say, “Law enforcement resources and time are consumed by police tasked with solving crimes impacting those victimized by addicts, drug traffickers and drug dealers.”

Meanwhile, the prohibitively expensive medical treatment for physical conditions afflicting addicts represents a huge financial burden for an average family in Franklin County, where the per capita income is among the lowest in the State of Massachusetts.

Sheriff Donelan offered an example: “It costs $500,000 to treat one of the most common heart valve infections caused by IV drug use.” Further complicating the situation in Greenfield, drug problems have crossed over the “boundaries of poverty.” Mr. Donelan added, “What is unique about this heroin problem is that we are seeing rich kids and middle-class kids addicted.”

Under the grim circumstances at present, many feel there is no time to lose. Grassroots organizations, such as the Opioid Task Force, have kick-started multiple projects to aid heroin and prescription-drug addicts. The Opioid Task Force is a collection of community stakeholders aiming to address drug problems in the County, consisting of various committees tackling the multi-faceted problems from different angles. For instance, the Education and Awareness Committee is cooperating with schools to increase the student population’s exposure to knowledge about symptoms of depression. In addition, the Healthcare Solutions Committee seeks to lower the accessibility of prescription medications to patients, and the Treatment and Recovery Committee works to clear the obstacles patients may face when requiring medical treatment for addiction.

Aspiring to develop a community-based solution to drug problems in Franklin County, the Opioid Task Force regards heroin and prescription drug addictions as diseases, and aims to support drug addicts in the similar ways one would care for cancer patients.

“We support each other,” said Mr. Donelan, “[and] erase the stigma of addiction and come up with a compassionate response for addicted persons and their families to get treatment and support.”

Mr. Donelan added, “We have historically looked at people on drugs as criminal. We now realize that most of the criminal behavior is because of the drugs. If we approach the drug problem from a public health perspective, the criminal justice problem declines dramatically.”

Dean of Spiritual and Ethical Life Jan Flaska, who directs Deerfield’s community service projects, believes that although the student body, a young population, may not be able to make substantial changes in the case of drug problems in surrounding communities, students can still play a role in dealing with “social issues that emerge when adults have substance abuse issues.” Mr Flaska stated, “We do have programs that connect our students with the children of parents that may be struggling in one way or another.”

Sheriff Donelan suggested that Deerfield students could contribute beyond Big Brothers, Big Sisters and work with Community Action of Hampshire and Franklin County to identify and help “at risk” youths. “So many kids need strong adult role models to keep them pointed in the right direction,” Mr, Donelan said. “You might also connect with local high schools and form a proud and loud group of kids who do not use drugs. The more kids feel free to push back on peer pressure, the better.”

Meanwhile, Deerfield students can continue to volunteer to better the lives of their neighbors in the Greenfield area. As Haidun Liu ’15 said, “Donating to the local food bank and volunteering for Second Helpings are both good options.”

When asked how the Deerfield community could be an agent of positive change in the area, Dean of Students Amie Creagh responded, “Ultimately, I think this issue—and so many other—is about sharing stories, being willing to share our own stories and listening attentively and actively to those of others, both within and outside our school community.”