By Andy McKeever
03:46AM / Tuesday, June 12, 2012
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Something needs to be done about the opiate problem in the county right now, local officials told the state’s highest public safety official on Monday.
Secretary of Public Safety and Security Mary Elizabeth Heffernan met with the the county’s public officials Monday to talk about crime issues, the biggest of which is opiate use.
“The opiate problem has exploded more than I’d ever imagined,” Brian Foley, who heads the county’s drug task force for the state police, said. “We’re seeing a totally different criminal.”
Foley said the task force has raided homes of elderly people who were selling prescriptions and former business people who have gotten caught up in drug crimes. Prescription drugs are turning into heroin problems like the county has never seen before, he said.
District Attorney David Capeless said the perception of overdoses has changed dramatically. Heroin overdoses used to be seen as typically a man in his 20s dead in an alley; now most overdoses are occurring with people over the age of 40 — and many of those are related to prescription drugs.
“The problem is that the reality, the norm, is too much. There is just too much of it,” Capeless said. “They’re prescribing opiates when all you need is aspirin.”
Capeless said the medical community has focused on pain too much and that is putting the drugs into the community. Opiate prescription has increased in recent years and with that, more people are selling them and there are more to steal.
State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, agrees. Pignatelli said when his daughter had her wisdom teeth pulled, the doctor prescribed a month’s worth of OxyContin.
“She’s 90 pounds and he gave her a whole bottle,” Pignatelli said. “I was scared to give her one of these pills, let alone a whole bottle.”
In an animated and passionate rant, Pignatelli advocated for a zero tolerance policy in the county.
“I don’t mind cracking heads… We’re losing an entire generation of young kids,” Pignatelli said. “I’m done talking. I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”
Pignatelli said he had the same conversation eight years ago. The state police were willing to start a zero tolerance policy but not every community was on board and it was never implemented, he said.
Conditions haven’t gotten better and it is time to initiate a policy now, he said.
Capeless, however, said what did come out of those conversations was funding for the guns and drugs initiative that formed the drug task force. That program has been doing wonders but the funding has been decreasing each year, he said.
“I’m hoping next year we will be back to $150,000,” Capeless said, adding that the money is used to pay the overtime costs for officers in the various county departments who are on the task force.
Police Chief Michael Wynn said the funding is important because the county is often overlooked. Pittsfield is often too small or too big to be eligible for federal and state grant funds, and those extra dollars often go to the big cities.
Sheriff Thomas Bowler added that all roads lead to the county, with heroin coming from the Holyoke area and cocaine from New York City.
The programs Berkshire County enforcement organizations have implemented should be a model for the rest of the state, Wynn said. Capeless and Bowler both raved about the collaboration between agencies that are fighting drug crime but said there is not enough funding to solve the problem.
Bowler talked about how inmates at the Berkshire County House of Correction are connected to criminal groups outside.
“We’ve solved a number of crimes outside, in Berkshire County, because of the information inside of our walls,” said the sheriff.
Capeless said the jail is lacking funding to treat addicts. While the dealers are heading to state prison, the addicts are going to county lockup. From there, they are being sent back on the street and often falling into the same habits. There needs to be a better way to treat addicts and keep them from falling back into crime, he said.
Heffernan completely agreed about treatment. She said she is promoting a “three-pronged approach” that consists of sentencing reform, improved use of current facilities and supervising inmates after they are freed.
“We have to do something differently in the way we treat people. We need to change that to a different model,” Heffernan said. “We don’t use the monies the best that we could.”
Heffernan said sentencing had to be done in a way solve the problem. Rather than sticking an addict in a jail that won’t cure the addiction, use the current facilities for that and increase supervising addicts once they leave.
The “revolving door” needs to end, she said.
Pignatelli said rehabilitation facilities are only keeping people for seven days, when it used to be 21 days.
“No one is going to be cured in seven days,” he said.
Foley, however, warned to not do away with minimum sentences because “there needs to be the stick and carrot.” Yet, the minimum sentences need to be fair, he said.
Mayor Daniel Bianchi and North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright both talked about the success of the drug task force but said the opiate problem is still bad in their communities.
“In North Adams, it is no different,” Alcombright said. “It really goes back to the overprescribing.”
Heffernan said she has heard the same issues in every community that she’s visited in the state.
“I applaud what I heard this morning about the way you work together,” Heffernan said.
Also in attendance were state Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, who hosted the meeting, state Reps. Paul Mark, D-Peru, Gailanne Cariddi, D-North Adams and Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield.