The Opiate Trap

When he was about 10, Jonathan Doherty, a curious boy with a penchant for starting conversations with strangers, earned the nickname Mr. Mayor.


Making friends and trying new things came effortlessly to Jonathan. So when his sunny disposition took a turn and his schoolwork began to suffer as a teenager attending junior high school in Lynn, his father, Paul Doherty, took him to see a

local physician.


The diagnosis was a shock to the family.


“I was told if you don’t get your child some kind of long-term treatment, he could die,” Doherty said. “We never thought it would be that bad.”


At age 15, Jonathan was addicted to heroin, a habit he picked up after he and some classmates began experimenting with marijuana. Then it was on to prescription painkillers, including OxyContin, which when crushed for snorting or injecting, offers an intense high similar to heroin.


“It kind of took a turn for the worse because Percocet and OxyContin, all those types of pills are so addictive to these kids. Within weeks you’re addicted,” Paul Doherty said. “Jon had an addictive personality and didn’t care if it was baseball or drugs, and it escalated rapidly, and the drugs were available. . . . We ended up in a treatment program.”


Jonathan’s path to addiction is hardly unique. Health and law enforcement officials north of Boston have seen a rapid, ongoing spike in the abuse of prescription opiates and the most notorious street version — heroin — that they link to an increase in overdoses and crime. In 2009, the Massachusetts OxyContin and Heroin Commission declared the abuse of OxyContin and heroin an epidemic.


The panel, made up of state legislators and health experts, made a series of recommendations, from improving ways to discourage doctor-shopping — a commonly used practice to obtain multiple prescriptions — to investing in recovery programs, including sober schools such as Northshore Recovery High School in Beverly.


But some health officials contend that the addiction is not being treated with the same urgency that is applied to less stigmatized health problems.


“The response to a pandemic flu or meningitis is ‘The sky is falling!,’ and for [overdoses] is, ‘Eh, they’re just druggies,’ ” said Frank Singleton, Lowell’s health director. “They’re spending $1 million to spray for mosquitoes because one person might die. Triple E scares people, while ‘Druggies cause their own problems.’ ”


Last year, Lowell recorded 31 deaths as a result of opiate overdoses, up from 19 in 2010. Of the 31 deaths, nine were attributed to heroin, compared with one in 2008. Since 2003, a total of 192 people have died in Lowell of opiate-related overdoses, with test results on 20 additional deaths still pending, according to data collected by the city’s Health Department.


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